Monday, January 28, 2008

The Privilege of Hair Space

Seinfeld of the day: "Should we be talking about this?"

Perhaps you were wondering where I was going with this baby-touching post. I hope I can throw some thoughts out without sounding too nutters. I may need my favorite college soc major to help me out.

As y'all noted, people like to touch babies, even if they don't know them. That's understandable to some extent, depending on the situation.

The skin thing I can let go because it's usually just a hand, which baby herself reaches out or could pull away, and it's usually baby-loving adults talking about how soft baby skin always is. If someone seems amazed at the softness I just smile and with my best Queer Eye for the Straight Guy voice say, "Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize!"

But I have really been noticing the head-touching lately and it's starting to bother me. It's just really, really too much like petting sometimes. I love her curls too, but she's not a poodle, people.

I let a lot of things go because it's teenagers who are the most frequent offenders--probably 75 percent--and I know they just plain don't have much sense of certain social graces like personal space and baby boundaries. Let alone, here where we live, extra sensitivity to how it might look and feel for them to be so grabby with the only black child in sight or the knowledge that just because she's black doesn't mean she'll grow the kind of massive disco-funk afro they think would be flippin' sweet.

And now I think that's exactly why I need to not let it go so much: lest they think it's okay to touch a black baby's (or any baby's, actually) head without hesitation or asking, and so think it's okay to touch a black three-year-old's head/hair any old time, without asking. And then a ten-year-old's hair. And a fourteen-year-old's hair. And then that poor only black girl on her dorm floor's hair (because I recall this interview I did at my 90% white college with the school's minority student representative and how she mentioned how while the black students were all for talking openly about race, it gets awful tiresome to have everyone wanting to feel your hair all the time). And God forbid they develop some kind of embarrassing Barbara Walters pawing compulsion. Newsflash: Black people don't like random people touching their heads. (Also, this just in, parents don't like random people touching their babies!)

So why did I ask this on MLK Day? Well, first of all, it was just on my mind because I'd noticed a lot of head-patting on our last outings (and yes, it's starting to mess up her hair), and I was wondering how to politely discourage this. Then I wondered how other parents deal with this and realized that it probably wasn't a major concern for most of my white friends with white babies. Of course, as your comments noted, we all deal with the touching to some extent, because people just can't seem to keep their hands off of babies. But I'm telling you, it's like her hair is magnetized for some people. And here, I think, is the important difference: If your child is white, you never have to wonder if people are touching her because she's black. (You also don't get hair care questions or all those afro jokes.)

When you don't have to think about a problem that other people have to deal with, that's called a privilege. In this case, an example of white privilege. I'm not mad about it or anything; obviously we signed up for this, and it's more of an observation than a problem at this point. I'm just a sociology nerd who found it interesting that while some people would say this privilege doesn't even exist, here I'd found an example to add to my personal list (right after inability to purchase inconspicuous Band-Aids).

Maybe you think I'm thinking too much about this. Maybe you're thinking, as Peggy McIntosh puts it, "my chief worries about [my white children] do not concern others' attitudes toward their race." But that's my point: they don't have to if your child's in the majority. I'm just saying that if you've never thought about how people react to your child's race at all--never wondered how to keep well-meaning curiosity from one day turning into a lot of burden for a little girl to bear--well, isn't it a privilege that you don't have to worry about that on top of all the other worries about creepy grabby people in general and plastics leeching into food and the icecaps melting and yada yada yada?

All I can tell you is that from my observation, people touch my girl's hair a lot. So the next question is, how do I reverse this trend? I think my new rule might be if you're not holding her, don't touch her (head). If she reaches her hand out to touch you, that's different, of course. But I've never once seen her thrust her head at someone. And I'm just sayin', there's a difference between needing one of these:
and also needing one of these:

We'll take one of each, please!

Postscript disclaimer: If you're a friend or relative reading this, don't worry, I probably don't mind you touching my baby.


Jenny said...

I've GOT to get me that last onesie! Totally. And that Seinfeld script? Too funny!

BTW, my fave baby tip was how to calm baby. Nothing like a little liquor to calm a screaming baby!

~Hippie~ said...

Hopefully I'm not a frequent offended of the baby-touching thing. I try not to bug you and her too much as I know it can get annoying to always be pawed and patted.

Tiki R said...

I just have to chime in here:
The twins turned 3 last Thursday and we took them out for dinner. Now, I can say, that since they are now about the same height as the end of an average persons hand, their heads get touched a lot more frequently. It's just the closest body part to touch.
So, we are waiting to get seated, and I had put the girls' hair in pigtails, and next thing ya know, there's this elderly gentleman holding both of Lauren's tails and playing with them!!!! What am I supposed to do???!!! What do you say!!!! I thought of you, Wendy! And then I felt sorry for Anna. And then I told the nice old man that she was not a pony! He just laughed and moved on...
So, I guess that things are not going to get better for your daughter as she gets older unless you put your foot down now and ask people to respect your/her boundaries-and don't feel bad about it! You're the Mom!

Amy said...

Since I can't relate to the hair thing, I do have to comment on the Band-Aids; even Doug and I wear the kid's themed ones now. I personally favor Backyardigans, while Doug likes Diego. Why try to hide an owie? :)

wmw said...

Hippie, no worries, you're fine. You love all of her, not just the hair, and she loves you!

I know you know how it is since you always have the ladieeees pawing you...really, how do you cope? ;)

Ren, right on, it's just that I think we'll have the same problem you have--but maybe multiplied. Boundaries is the right word.

Amy - Aaron likes a good Star Wars Band-Aid himself...

kessepha said...

I just posted to the original but a few more thoughts.

I think people like baby hair in general. Now I would never come up and touch your baby's hair... I think that it's rude to grab at other people of any age... but I think pepole are fascinated with textures of baby hair of all races. Anglo baby hair is the softest thing on earth. Anglo people hand me their babies, and ooooh. I used to love touching my babies' hair. African baby hair is charming and I think to a lot of people exotic. Asian baby hair is so shiny that people kind of become like magpies over it... must touch... must...

I think some Anglo/white people see us as accessible mothers (because we're Anglo/white, too) and if they have limited access to people of other races they use us and our kids to fulfill a curiosity. It's a loving thing (these are people who love babies) and a bridge building thing when you're comfortable with it... but it is using you and your child and I think you sense that.

biffmayhem said...

We've not yet experienced that yet and you've seen pictures of their hair that constantly sticks straight up. We've had people stop us in the mall so they could look but so far they've been respectful enough to not touch.

If they tried I would stop them and ask the last time they washed their hands (because I'm NEVER blunt!). It would stop them dead in their tracks hopefully.

One thing we do get is lots of "Awww's" and "Oh look, twins!".

Allison R said...

Hi Wendy,
A friend of mine that lives in El Paso, Texas has an 8 month old, Noah. I asked her if random people come up to Noah and touch him. Without hesitation, she said yes.
Apparently it is Mexican tradition that if you see a baby and don't touch it, it is like putting a curse on the baby!!! So-there you go. Anna is REALLY blessed!