Last week, I went to the movies for the first time in ages. The Korean film, Parasite was in theaters, and it sounded appealing enough for me to leave the comfort of my home on a Saturday night. While in line for tickets, I felt a tug on my left sleeve. A middle-aged white woman behind me in line leaned in a little too close and asked if she could take a photograph of my hair. Her phone was already in hand. I noticed she had a 10-year-old boy with her. I’m aware that my hair, rainbow-dyed dreadlocks are a bit of a spectacle, especially to a white suburban woman, but I was not in the mood to be documented. My edges were rough and my nervous system was already on high alert from dodging clueless pedestrians in the parking lot who wouldn’t look up from their phones before crossing in front of my car. I really didn’t want to be photographed by a stranger, but I was immediately confronted with a fear that has followed me my entire life — don’t appear as an angry black woman.
“Okay, boundaries,” I reminded myself silently. I gave the woman a shy smile and paused a moment before saying, “No, thank you.” The woman leaned in closer with a saccharine-sweet smile, and said in a voice too low for her son to hear, “You know, I could’ve just taken your picture without asking you.” Sweat immediately began spilling out of my forehead. I pushed back, “Yeah, I’m not really in the mood, besides, I’ve had a lot people touch my hair without permission, so…” She cut me off to say, “I just want a photo, my daughter is in the entertainment industry and she would love…” The rest of the woman’s words were drowned out by the bellowing warning in my head — DON’T APPEAR AS AN ANGRY BLACK WOMAN. The boy was looking up at me curiously. Now I felt the pressure of representing for all black people. “Okay, do it quickly,” I muttered as if I was in front of a firing squad. The woman then instructed me to turn my face away and arrange my hair just so for her photograph.
When the photo was taken, I turned away and tried to regain my composure and regulate my nervous system. But she wasn’t done. She continued to yammer on about Hollywood hair styles. Her son, following his mother’s lead asked me if my hair was part of a Halloween costume. “No…it’s my everyday hair.” “Is it real?” he asked. Again, feeling the weight of being the ambassador of all black people, I replied as calmly and patiently as I could, “It is real, but just so you know, it’s very rude to ask someone if their hair is real.” The mother cut back in, saying that her daughter had an extensive wig collection and asked if my hair was woven with yarn.
I had reached the end of my tolerance just as I reached the front of the ticket line, and I was finally able to get away from these people. I then sat in the theater, drenched in my own sweat, my mind unable to focus on the screen in front of me as I attempted to watch the actual horror movie I had paid to see.
It’s not about my hair. It’s never just about hair. It was the realization that this woman implicitly understood that she could cross my boundaries and have access to me in any way she wanted, all the while modeling this behavior for her son. It was a brutal, yet subtle display of power. I can’t fathom pushing a stranger’s boundaries after being told no. It’s a privilege and entitlement completely foreign to me. Meanwhile, I was painfully aware of the imbalance of social power between us. I understood that if I upset her, I would be the one seen in the wrong. If she were to feel threatened by me pushing back with more force, how quickly would other white bystanders rush to her defense? How many people are primed to come to the defense of a frightened white woman? What about all the unknown self-appointed good-guy-with-a-gun vigilantes? What about the security guards who are trained to racially profile? What if the police were called? I was balancing all of these possible realities in real time as I tried to calm myself.
The worse part of all of this was the guilt and shame I felt for letting this woman cross my boundary. I am a mental health counselor. I work predominantly with people of color. I run a support group for queer womxn of color, guiding them in navigating life in a very white city. I also run a process group for white women, educating them on power and privilege. On top of that, I see two different therapists, take medication for depression and anxiety, and have a wonderful support system. With all the skills and resources afforded to me, I still found myself frozen in fear when confronted with an entitled white woman. I don’t want to be the next Atatiana Jefferson or Sandra Bland.
This encounter was 4 days ago. I really wanted to let this go. Last night I had a nightmare that I was being pursued by a white female police officer. I woke up drenched in my own sweat, my jaw aching from a night of clenching. Even though the encounter only lasted minutes, the repercussions continue to follow me. I wrote this article in hopes that white people will learn from this experience, and that other black bodies can be spared from transgressions like this. It doesn’t matter if you smile, it doesn’t matter if you sound nice. It doesn’t matter if you ask please. You are not entitled to our bodies. Black bodies do not exist for your entertainment. Black hair is not yours to marvel at, to document, to ask questions about. We do not exist for your validation. Know the injuries you inflict spread well beyond the length of the encounter. Know your power and privilege. No means no.