Once, while she was sitting in a chair in my living room, I reached out and touched a Black woman’s hair. At that moment and without thinking about it in any way, my hand was drawn to her hair, its airiness and resilience. I patted her hair a few times before what I was doing struck me and I pulled my hand back. She never turned her head to look at me but I felt her stiffen her shoulders. She would never scold me, though. My young friend looked up to me, respected me as an elder, and touching her hair could be interpreted as my trying to comfort her. She was, after all, going through a difficult situation.
I should have said, “I’m sorry I just touched your hair like that.” But I didn’t, hoping, I guess, that the moment would evaporate and she wouldn’t attach a bad meaning to my presumption that her hair was there for me to touch. But I knew that I’d overstepped. Obviously, because I remember it still five years later. I also know that if I apologized to her right now, she would wave it off even if it had really upset her, because she is accustomed to not making issues out of the missteps of White people. There isn’t enough time in the day, she would say.
I waver between wanting to believe I’m not racist because a Black friend once told me I was post-racial and knowing that the history of racism and slavery is as much part of my DNA as any White southerner. It is harder to deny my own racism when I have reflexes like touching my young Black friend’s hair. Because, you see, it’s reflexes where your DNA really steps up and tells you what’s what.
My ancestors came from England and settled in New York. They were early adopters, if you will, ahead of the immigration curve. Before America was a thing, my folks were here. The year they settled in New York has a 16 in it, if that tells you anything. Slavery was legal in New York until 1827, two hundred years later. That’s a lot of DNA to pile up, a lot of reflex to reproduce and settle in to a whole line of people. Maybe they owned slaves, maybe not. But my ancestors certainly lived in a slave-holding society for a long time.
So assuming I really am post-racial as I like to think I am, I know that, at best, my post-racialism is an intellectual response to my environment. It means that when I have time to think, assess, evaluate, I generally have reactions that are not racist. It means that I support policies that are anti-racist and associate with people who are like-minded, who are also not racist. But I’m not so sure my nerve endings, the unruly ganglia of reflex, have caught up to this post-racially evolved state. They may still be getting some of their signals from men wearing knee pants and carrying muskets.
My situation isn’t unusual, it’s just unspoken. White folks don’t go around talking about how they stupidly touched a Black woman’s hair. They don’t mention the imperceptible second look at the Black teen walking toward them or the tiny second’s worth of hesitation in sharing an elevator with a Black man. Those are secrets we upstanding citizens with enormously deep roots in America keep to ourselves, mostly because we don’t want to call it what it is. It’s racism.
It’s going to be a long struggle to end racism when it’s baked into genes we haven’t even discovered yet. We’ll get there, I believe that, but meanwhile, I’m keeping my hands to myself.