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June 20, 2019 Outside the box

Don’t touch my hair!

Bonnie J. Walker
Check out Bonnie J. Walker's other Outside the Box columns.
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I vividly remember at 8 years old, sitting on a swing next to my white friend, Kate, in the elementary school playground of Hanover, N.H. In that moment, Kate imposed among the first of the many jarring and self-esteem-depleting comments directed at my race over the course of my life. As soon as I knew what she was starting to say, I wanted to stop her, or make myself disappear.

“Are you black? Because you don’t act black. I don’t think of you that way. You’re different than them … better, I mean. Are you adopted?” she asked.

This comment hurt me more than similar comments had, because it came from my friend, I trusted and felt safe around. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “My dad is black, and he’s the smartest, most loving, and capable person I know. I hope to be like him!”

I was one of the few children of color across the entire county school system. My experiences as such clearly led to my career path, focused on empowering underrepresented people, and my drive to eliminate racism becoming personal.

Thinking about it now, I wish the grown me were there to speak for the insecure child who crumbled in the moment, choking back tears in silence. Kate’s comments were not overtly racist, making it difficult to nail down why they made me feel so bad.

Today, I understand Kate’s comments were microaggressions. Mary Rowe, from MIT, coined the term in the 1970s. Derald Sue, of Columbia University, puts it very succinctly: brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, communicating hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults.

Micro in this context does not mean small indignities, rather meaning they occur at the interpersonal level. Similarly, macroaggression does not mean large indignities, but happening at the organizational or societal level. Microaggressions often target a person or group perceived to have less power, status, or privilege, and show up in behaviors including or excluding others.

If you haven’t read the New York Times best seller, “You Can’t Touch My Hair,” by author, stand-up comedian and actress Phoebe Robinson, pick it up! Phoebe discusses race, gender, and feminism in a funny, down-to-earth, and intentional way. “Being a black woman in America means contending with old prejudices and fresh absurdities every day,” she writes.

I reached out to women colleagues of color, and men and women who identify as queer (with intersectionality across identities), to highlight microaggressions in the workplace. I asked them to share the most frustrating, angering, and/or hurtful microaggressions.

• To a transgender woman: “You’re so pretty, I would never have guessed that you used to be a man.”

• A Latina in senior leadership said to her Asian subordinate employee, “Let’s put you on the other project, I know math aptitude is part of your DNA.”

• To a co-worker: “For being gay, you’re pretty focused and reliable.”

• A white person to a black woman: “I love your hair, it’s like sheep wool.” And then touched it, outright.

• A straight person continued to refer to a transgender woman with he/him/his pronouns, long-after her transition.

• White colleagues ask a black colleague in a board meeting: “Do you think this action would be offensive to black people?” After she responded “Yes,” which was uncomfortable enough speaking for an entire race, she was asked again if she was sure.

• Several people said colleagues outside of their identity group had told them they do understand the struggle, because they have a friend or a roommate in college who identified as someone of color or LGBTQIAP+.

Most people have committed microaggressions against others unintentionally. By becoming more knowledgeable about microaggressions will reduce them. While a particular comment or action may seem benign, it can be very disruptive. Underrepresented groups are microaggressed against frequently, whereby a series of small slights creates a constant, hostile environment.

Please remember above all else, don’t touch my hair!

Bonnie J. Walker is executive director of diversity & inclusion strategy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, plying this arena in higher education in Mass. for 15 years. Contact her at

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