Amie Lee explains how the photo of President Obama being patted on the head by a little boy evoked deep feelings about the way strangers have always wanted to touch her bi-racial children’s hair.
Have you seen the photo circulating this week of a little boy in the Oval Office touching President Obama’s hair? The New York Times explains how this photo came to be:
The boy in the picture is Jacob Philadelphia of Columbia, Md. Three years ago this month, his father, Carlton, a former Marine, was leaving the White House staff after a two-year stint on the National Security Council that began in the Bush administration. As departing staff members often do, Mr. Philadelphia asked for a family photograph with Mr. Obama.
When the pictures were taken and the family was about to leave, Mr. Philadelphia told Mr. Obama that his sons each had a question. In interviews, he and his wife, Roseane, said they did not know what the boys would ask. The White House photographer, Pete Souza, was surprised, too, as the photo’s awkward composition attests: The parents’ heads are cut off; Jacob’s arm obscures his face; and his older brother, Isaac, is blurry.
Jacob spoke first.
“I want to know if my hair is just like yours,” he told Mr. Obama, so quietly that the president asked him to speak again.
Jacob did, and Mr. Obama replied, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?” He lowered his head, level with Jacob, who hesitated.
“Touch it, dude!” Mr. Obama said.
As Jacob patted the presidential crown, Mr. Souza snapped.
“So, what do you think?” Mr. Obama asked.
“Yes, it does feel the same,” Jacob said.
Hair-touching is kind of a big deal in our family. My husband is Black, I’m White. We have had 5 kids together, which is sort of like playing the genetic lottery. We never knew what our kids would look like, until they were here. Our kids span the Pantone Color Chart. Our oldest, Javen, has dark, mocha brown skin, with floppy near-black curls and brown eyes. The next one, Maxwell, has piercing black eyes, olive skin, and springy coils with just a hint of “ethnic” texture. Our daughter Stella has a golden-tan complexion with blue eyes, light brown hair, and full-on African Princess curls and texture. Her twin sister had (she passed away) jet black hair, dark olive skin, dark brown eyes, and the same curl and texture. Our youngest, Ty, has totally Caucasian skin, hazel eyes, and bouncy, loose curls in a light chocolate brown. People are often shocked to see that his dad is a Black man. Other than their features, it’s hard to tell they are even related.
I was raised in a dysfunctional home, but the one thing my parents did right, bless them, was to raise me to be as color-blind as you can possibly be in the Midwest. And that’s quite an accomplishment, when you come from a Dutch town that’s brimming with blond hair and blue eyes. Shortly after we started having kids, my husband and I noticed this strange phenomenon. People would touch our kids hair. Often. Without permission. At first we were kind of surprised, but didn’t really say much (after all, I had just been subjected to nine months of renegade pregnant-belly-touching).
After awhile, however, it began to grate on my nerves. And my kids’. I also began noticing the comments that accompanied the touching. “Look at that HAIR” (said with an appalled expression) “It doesn’t feel like what I expected!” “Crazy hair!” “It feels like steel wool” “Oh my gosh, his hair is SOFT!” (shock!). We couldn’t make a trip to the grocery store without having someone touch their hair, and the comments were never even close to complimentary. I started telling people that the kids don’t like having their hair “fondled” but the problem is that I always told them AFTER they’d committed the crime.
I could never see it coming. People would just reach over and steal a quick touch, like they were snatching a grape from the produce stand. I discussed it with my husband, and wondered if I was affected more than the kids, maybe they didn’t even notice. Then one day I was pushing my daughter through Target in a shopping cart, and a lady reached over and (somewhat aggressively) buried her hand in Stella’s little afro. My three year-old daughter SCREAMED at the top of her lungs “Don’t TOUCH my hair!!” I knew then, that it bothered the kids too. The lady shut her mouth and quickly walked away, stunned.
I can’t help but think that all of this shaped my kid’s opinions of themselves. I learned how to style my daughter’s hair, because I never wanted her to be “that kid with the White mom who can’t do her hair.” Even in spite of her BEAUTIFUL hair and face, my daughter looks in the mirror almost daily and laments her hair. “I wish I had YOUR hair.” “I wish I had Peyton’s hair.” Peyton, a girl in my daughter’s class, has stunning, waist-long, golden locks. Straight locks. I hear these comments, and I wonder if she would think this way if people had kept their hands and comments to themselves. They made my kids feel like their hair was a side-show attraction. Do you know that YESTERDAY was the first time ever that a White person (aside from family) mentioned my daughter’s hair and COMPLIMENTED it? She is nearly eight years old. It took eight years for someone to tell her that her difference was beautiful. I’m sure none of these people meant any harm, but I’m quite certain that harm was caused.
When my kids see someone with hair “like them” they are enthralled. When I saw the photo of the little boy touching the president’s hair, the past 10 years of hair-touching came to mind. The powerful impact of identifying with, or NOT identifying with the world around you. The impact of being treated like you are different, being gawked at, or being touched without permission because your hair “feels funny.”
The tables were turned in that photo, it redefined hair-touching for me. Maybe it will for my kids someday too.
Photo of Max, Javen, Ty and Stella courtesy of the author
Photo of the President and Jacob Philadelphia by Pete Souza/Official White House Photo