Kamau Bell and Racist Five Year Olds

Mods: Not sure where this should go. Here in CS? IMHO? Pit?

I caught the end of an interview with comedian A. Kamu Bell hosted by Terry Gross yesterday. Having not seen his act and only bits on TV, I didn’t have much of an opinion regarding Bell but he sounds intelligent and is funny at times. The conversation at that point concerned how Bell was going to deal with racial issues and and their impact on his bi-racial daughters. Bell’s wife is white. Gross said that the girls were probably too young (two and five years old) to feel the impact of racism directly but would soon enough. Bell stated that his older daughter went to a diverse (I think, private) school but that it wasn’t black enough for him. I’m not sure if that remark was an attempt at humor or not. He chuckled as he said it. He went on to say that his older daughter had been wearing her hair “out” but told him that she was going to start wearing it pulled back or in or whatever the correct term is. He asked her why and she said that other kids were touching her "out " hair without her permission and it made her uncomfortable. Bell then went on to say that this was racism in action. From five year old kids. He never alleged that the other kids were picking on his daughter, calling her names, excluding her or anything else. WTF, Bell? Racism? Really? Could it be that five year old children are likely to check out anything that is new or different out of mere curiosity? And that the way they do it is to touch it? I’m certain that there are five year olds who are raised to be racist from birth but that doesn’t sound like the case here. I’m equally sure your daughters have perfect manners and are well schooled in social mores. Most five year olds don’t fit that mold. I was disappointed that Gross didn’t call him on this but I had the impression that she may have been stunned and/or didn’t want to challenge her guest during a friendly interview. In any case, it is now my opinion that Bell is an asshole.

Here’s what he actually said for anyone that is interested (bolding mine):


Touching hair is racism? Is that what is he is saying? TBH, I have no response for adults touching his hair, but kids? Seriously? That is why people go through childhood, to learn social boundaries.

How kind of you to volunteer his daughter as an object lesson in social boundaries.

Aren’t all kids object lessons in learning social boundaries? That’s part of being a kid.

Everything is racist now. I’ll just go ahead and make sure you get a copy of the memo.

And if it had been curly red hair? Still racism at that point or simple curiosity of a small child overcoming the “keep your hands to yourself” instruction they likely received?

I heard that interview.

(bolding mine) To me this is the critical part. This child’s perception is that everyone (probably an exaggeration, but we don’t know if so or how much) touches her hair without her permission when it’s out.

This is another thing, although not as serious as being shot by a policeman for the crime of being black, that black people have to go through just because. The sense it gives to the black person seems to be that they are not fully a person with a person’s right not to be touched without permission.

Admittedly it’s probably not a huge thing, and it is probably a teaching opportunity for the kids, but in general this seems to be a hot button for black people. Something bigger than a micro-aggression but smaller than Black Lives Matter. Maybe this guy was over-reacting (and, incidentally, I think the way he actually handled it* with his daughter was very good) but this is another place where context is very important. I’ve never been black and I’ve never been on the receiving end of this kind of behavior, but I’ve seen this complaint often enough to recognize it as a real thing.

*He simply told her she could wear her hair “in” or “out” whichever she wanted, so she wore it in for a while and then went back to wearing it out.

It’s beginning racism but what do you want? They’re five year olds.

White people touching black people’s hair is a thing. It’s not something that Bell imagined.


Here’s what you can do when you learn something new about racism. Absorb the new information and resolve to avoid that behavior in the future now that you know other people find it offensive. Or ignore it because you’re a special snowflake who should never have to change because you’re perfect just the way you are.

I’m not sure I agree with him that characterizing it as racism is appropriate, but I’m not 100% sure he’s wrong, and even if he is, I don’t think that makes him an asshole.

Where it might verge into racism is in the fact that there aren’t many black kids at her school. She’s being Othered by the kids there–not deliberately, not viciously, but institutionally, by an institution that makes her the only kid with that kind of hair at school. And while th emotives might be innocent, the effects are not: they’re making her uncomfortable in her body, in a way that many black people are made to feel uncomfortable in their bodies, in a way that often is the result of white people taking liberties with black people’s bodies, in a way that’s going to break the heart of a parent.

Racism on the kid’s part? I don’t think so. Systemic racism in action? Yeah, kinda.

His response–that parents need to teach their kids not to touch other kids without asking–is directly on point, and his daughter’s shame at her hair is exhibit A in why this is an important lesson.

There may have been more to it than just the hair pulling.

Little kids explore differences. It’s natural and unavoidable.

However, white kids who grow up in integrated neighborhoods and go to integrated schools don’t get to age 5 and suddenly discover kinky hair for the first time. The fact that this discovery is happening at age 5 shows that, in all likelihood, those white kids hadn’t spent much time with black kids before. Moreover, unfortunately, kids raised in such segregation already form all kinds of implicit biases by age 5.

Not a stretch to call the incident racism at all.

Nicely put.

Thanks for your post, LHoD. I was about to ask “How on earth is one kid touching another kid’s hair racism?” and then you came along and explained it and helped me understand.

This is probably an autocorrect issue, but just to be clear—We are talking about W. Kamau Bell, I think.

I’m having a hard time seeing this as racism, even with LHOD’s explanation. There are two components to what’s happening here: First, the daughter’s hair is different from her classmates’, and second, her classmates don’t yet know appropriate social boundaries. The second part certainly isn’t racism: That is, as others have said, part of being a child. The first at least touches on issues of race, in that the daughter’s hair is different because she’s a different race… but there are many other possible differences that aren’t racial but which would elicit the same response. And yes, she’s only seen as different because the other kids haven’t had much exposure to black people yet in their lives, but is that racist? Probably not: Before school age, most of the people kids are going to be exposed to are their family members, who will generally be the same race as themselves. School is where they mostly start learning that yes, there are other people who look different from them, but they’re still ordinary people, like themselves in the important ways.

Agree with the praise for LHOD’s post; I think “Racism on the kid’s part? I don’t think so. Systemic racism in action? Yeah, kinda” sums it up nicely.

Jay Smooth’s 2008 videoblog referenced here http://kottke.org/17/04/jay-smooths-ill-doctrine-is-still-the-best is relevant. Calling 5-year-olds racist* is moronic. Saying that something they did or said is racist (or, more precisely, is an example of systemic racism that pervades our society to this day) is obviously still controversial, but defensible and in many cases correct. Not insignificantly, it shifts blame away from the individual and towards society.

  • I’m reminded of asking my dad if it was okay for two different races to marry - I must have been somewhere between 7 and 10 years old. He stared at me like I was crazy and started babbling frantically about how it was fine, how some of my classmates had parents of different races, etc.

I only asked because my elementary school friends and I were experimenting with Dungeons and Dragons, creating characters. I wanted to know if it was okay for an elf and a human (or whatever) to marry. When I clarified things, he was even more mystified.

I think you folks are leaping to all sorts of conclusions without evidence.

No evidence is given in the interview that this little girl is being singled out for unwanted hair touching because of the color of her skin or any other racial characteristics.

It could potentially be the case that they all touch each other’s hair, particularly if that hair is long. Ask any parent of a little girl with hair in braids, they will tell you - some unmannered kids will touch or pull on them. They will get touched by badly behaved kids, and they probably won’t like it any better than these girls.

Why is it “racist” to touch a kid’s “huge” hair (as described in the interview), and not racist to touch a kid’s braids? The trigger in each case seems to be the same - the availability of lots of hair to touch, in the presence of kids lacking in social graces to mind their invasions of other people’s personal boundaries. It is most likely a case of children being treated the same regardless of race and not differently because of their race. Lots of hair quite possibly = you get unwanted hair touching.

Of course it could also be racism. We aren’t given enough information to make that call. If I had to bet, I’d be betting against it, though.

The parental reaction in this case is to transform the problem of manners into a problem of race. Seems to me this isn’t a good thing. Though, to give the parent credit, he refrained from actually making that connection with his kid: “And part of me wants to sit her down and go, Sami, this is racism. That’s what you’re experiencing. But she’s not ready for that.”

You have a point about 5-year-olds having a family-centered social life. (Although they do get together a lot before that age, from what I, a childless 40something, have seen – all my friends are having kids and bringing them to other people’s kids’ parties. And there’s preschool, too.)

I think Bell might be extrapolating: this uninvited-touching-of-hair is something his daughter will deal with for years to come. As he did.

And, too, the exoticizing of “natural” black hair isn’t just a result of interpersonal unfamiliarity. It’s cultural: who’s on TV? What color are they? And, for the black people: how do they do their hair?

(I listened to Bell’s podcast about Denzel Washington, so I know he’s a fan of the kids’ cartoon “Doc McStuffins.” She’s a prominent African-American character for kids, and her hair is not “natural.” http://www.gstatic.com/tv/thumb/tvbanners/12981486/p12981486_b_v8_aa.jpg)

From the article:

Expecting little kids to ignore ‘huge, like sort of sculpture of hair’ and then concluding they are racist because they didn’t ignore it seems kind of odd.

There are a bunch of questions to start asking, first and foremost is are there other black kids who wear their hair out but don’t have huge sculpture like hair? If so, do they also have kids wanting to touch their hair?

I suspect that thiskid has the same thing happen.

Another question: When I was a kid I ended up at Disney World with my parents. I ended up in about 1,000 photos* with Japanese folks. Turns out the really blond hair and the blue eyes was a novelty for them so they would ask to take pictures. They would also touch my hair, most of the time without asking.

Was this racist? Should I have been insulted?


*Ok, maybe not 1,000 but it was a lot. And no, I didn’t mind.