Head Job

I use humor. I use it to diffuse the stereotype of the angry black bitch and to stunt my hate-filled, presumptuous and bigoted growth. I guffaw to keep from screaming. Seth wanted to rub my head.

I use humor. I use it to diffuse the stereotype of the angry black bitch and to stunt my hate-filled, presumptuous and bigoted growth. I guffaw to keep from screaming.

Seth wanted to rub my head. He should've asked first. The answer still would've been a hell no. But I deserve the option.

Last weekend I joined more than 1,000 other journalists in Boston for the 2002 Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. Intentions to learn strained beneath the groan of being with award-winning and internationally-acclaimed talent.

There were so many Pulitzer Prize-winning writers that, if we'd been bombed, the resulting brain drain on America would've caused a collective black out.

Friday night Jason, Linda, Seth, Maureen and I convened at the hotel's over-priced spinning rooftop restaurant.

Jason and I entered the ring of the oft-sidestepped topic of police misconduct. I ran it down like a commercial for a crooked law firm: Caton, Jorg, Roach, Twitty, Thomas, Owensby and Streicher.

Seth and Maureen got the Reader's Digest Award Tour of Cincinnati. Jason defended the cops. I didn't.

The only black person, I reminded Jason I'd done the Police Tango. I'd danced the Profile, the Detention, the Follow-the-Nigger and, my favorite, the Interrogation — a dance Negroes do when we're stopped for being in the wrong neighborhood.

The checks came and Linda retired, while Jason, Seth, Maureen and I reconvened to a lounge. Seth looked to be either a Seattle-born Indie musician, a med student or a New York barfly — but he's a magazine editor. He's tall enough to skulk.

The four of us talked about our writing processes and their downfalls. After enough, we said our goodnights and split.

After a detour, Jason and I made our way to the elevator. Seth, Maureen and four or five other whites — all men — were already crowded in.

I stood next to Seth. Before I knew what was happening, I saw, in my peripheral, his long arm and the left hand of his pair of Edward Scissorhands rising over my head. His spindly hand, palm down, rubbed my newly shorn head.

I recoiled. "What are you doing? I have no desire to rub your head," I said.

"You don't need to rub my head," he said, smiling and satisfied. "I just wanted to see how it felt."

The other white men seemed to hold their breaths, hoping they wouldn't witness a niggerbitchfit.

"You messed up my hair," I said, exiting.

The laughter at my back was nervous and tight. "Thank God" hung in an invisible thought balloon above their heads. That protective humor spared us. But wasn't shit funny.

In Jason's room, I vomited the scene in a run-on rant. Seth's reducing me, in the rub of my bald head, to a subliminalgooddarkiemammy stunk to high hell not only of low-level racism — it was a flash of white male privilege in an instant gratification egg roll. During our conversations, I'd not given him any indication his invasiveness was welcome or appropriate.

And this wasn't the first time I'd been caged in the Negro Petting Zoo. During my tenure as the only black at the Hamilton Journal-News, a young male photographer blanched after he touched my hair. He didn't have an invitation, either.

I was cultivating dreadlocks when, during small talk at my desk, he reached out and felt my hair. He quickly pulled his hand back, wiping it slyly yet repulsively against his Gap jeans.

I can't remember how I handled that one. Probably asked, in some faux Chris Rock squeal, "Why was white folks always tryin' to touch black folks' hair?"

Exasperated, I told Jason I was sick of making white men feel comfortable in response to my own discomfort.

"If I'd been, say, bell hooks I bet Seth wouldn't have pulled that shit," I said. "Does he know who I am? I'm a 37-year-old professional woman!"

As all innocent whites must who associate with known disgracers of their race, Jason took it.

I'm not a fur coat, a puppy or the manifestation of the exotic black woman. I'm beautiful, yes, but my boundaries are clear.

Saturday I spied Seth across the room. I played my position. God waited until Sunday morning. (Isn't that just like Him?)

On a double take, I recognized Gerald Boyd, the black managing editor of The New York Times. We both got on the elevator.

"Ohmigawd, you're from The New York Times? Gerald Boyd?"

He laughed. In a few minutes, he would tell us about building two major projects, "How Race Is Lived in America" and "Portraits of Grief."

Seth and I coincidentally converged on the same sad pastry table outside the ballroom. We exchanged polite greetings and small talk.

I looked over and saw Boyd again. Nearing the ballroom's door, I pointed out Boyd to Seth.

"I just came down in the elevator with him," I said.

"Did you touch him?" asked Seth.

"No," I said, "that would've been inappropriate." My voice was loud, agitated. "And I didn't rub his head, either."

Sitting in the row nearest the door, Maureen was in full laugh at my comments by the time I'd stepped inside.

"I knew that was you," she said.

Exactly. It's me.

So don't think because you're whiter, taller, more privileged and presumptuous or just a stupid man that you can ever get away with doing a job on my head.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.