The morning of the Charlottesville Nazi march, my white-presenting daughter rubbed her black friend’s short hair and told him it felt like dog hair.
This happened in front of me and his mother. We’d been lost in our adult conversation, and neither of us knew how things had gotten here. “Your friend is in charge of his body,” I told my daughter. And she took her hand back in recognition of the bodily autonomy principle I’ve ingrained in my children to make sure they know they are in charge of their own bodies and to keep them from physically terrorizing each other as they work through their sibling rivalry.
It was one incident amidst a lovely two-hour visit. We all said goodbye and made vague plans to meet again soon.
But, as I reflected on our time together, the hair touching stuck with me. I hadn’t done enough in just stopping my daughter and affirming the boy’s right over his body. My daughter had no understanding of why this was especially important for someone in a black body.
That afternoon, one of my Facebook friends, the best friend of my housemate, was sprayed by pepper spray protesting the white supremacists in Charlottesville. I wished I was there, that I could do something. And I realized that I might not have. If I had no children, yes, I would have been there. But I’ve struggled with the notion of keeping my children safe and keeping me alive to be their mother versus the idea that that is a privilege black Americans don’t have. They never know when their body or their child’s might be violated.
I still don’t have an answer for that dilemma. But one thing I can do is make sure my children know that black bodies need to be respected and kept safe.
I wrote to the boy’s mother and told her that I realized there was an extra layer to my daughter touching the hair of her black boy and that I would make sure my children understood why that was unacceptable. She’d spoken to her son about it. He had chalked it up to my daughter’s 7-year-old innocence. I said that, yes, it was innocence. But if it ever happens again, it’s ignorance.
As much as we’ve talked about social justice and the racist foundations of this country, my kids and I had never gotten so granular as talking about the bodies black people occupy, the bodies that receive the damage and poison of a society that doesn’t value black lives. But we talked about it over dinner that night. I made the connection for them between racism and the harm it does to black bodies. I probably did it imperfectly, but they now know not to touch a single black hair unless they become a hairdresser with black clients or, possibly, are intimate partners with a black person who gives them permission.
I’m still not certain if or how I fit in on the front lines with cars running people down and pepper spraying Nazis, at least until my kids are grown. But if we can raise a generation of white children who wouldn’t harm a hair on a black person’s head, that is something.