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Dear Race Manners:

So a while ago, I (a white man without much hair to speak of—I trim it to about a quarter-inch guard) was behind a black woman with a magnificent Afro in line at a coffee shop, and I said to her that I really liked her hair. She thanked me very graciously, but I wonder—was I in the wrong with this compliment?

I really thought her do rocked, but I want to do as right as possible. (No, I didn’t touch her hair—I’m white, not a barbarian. I don’t touch black people’s hair unless I’m on exceptionally good terms with them, and frankly, the same policy applies to white folks. Which I think should be the policy for everyone, except barbers acting in their professional capacity.) Thanks for your read on this. —A.K.

During a time when there are so many negative things happening in the world relating to how black people are treated, I admit I was somewhat disarmed by your earnest fretting about doing the right thing in a comparatively light area of life. I was tempted to just email this to you: “You’re fine! Other people are out here shooting unarmed black teenagers, and you’re tying yourself up in knots wondering if there’s any possible way an innocent compliment could have unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings. Pat yourself on the back.”

I do happen to think that you were as in the clear as one can be with the compliment you gave. But I decided to address your question more fully, since one person’s unexplained “not racist” assessment isn’t really worth much on its face—and because I try to remember that there’s room to think about large-scale, urgent matters of social justice and microaggressions (a term that’s made a recent resurgence to refer to race-related, irksome interactions that add up and alienate people on a daily basis). Truthfully, anything to do with black women and hair runs a pretty high risk of slipping into the latter category. So the instincts that made you question your coffee shop comments were right.

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Julee Wilson, the Huffington Post’s fashion and beauty editor, knows that well. In her previous role as style and beauty editor for HuffPost Black Voices, she covered—and, to an extent, embedded herself in—Antonia Opiah’s controversial 2013 “You Can Touch My Hair” exhibition in New York City. With the goal of unpacking the “tactile fascination” with black women’s hair, Opiah gathered three ladies bearing signs that invited the public to touch their locks of varying textures, and watched what happened.

As Wilson (who ended up granting a stranger’s request to touch her own curls during her reporting) wrote about the exhibit, it “elicited strong opinions on social media, with some likening the exercise to a slave-auction block, and others to a ‘petting zoo.’

“I knew that our hair held a lot of emotion, but that was just a very real, tangible, explosive event. For some people, it opened up those wounds and threw salt on them, and for some people it ultimately healed them because they had real conversations, between white people and black women, about what it all meant,” she told me.

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Keeping in mind that intensity, as well as Wilson’s general approach to this issue (“Who doesn’t want to be told that they’re beautiful?” she said), we agreed on three tips for delivering praise about the next “magnificent Afro” you see without having to question yourself later.

(Disclaimer: It goes without saying that these are just guidelines, because everyone’s different, and black women don’t have a national representative who can give the final word. Just as there are some people who would prefer that you didn’t say a word about the fact that they’ve lost weight or that they’re abstaining from drinking or that their child is small and cute, there are going to be some people who don’t want your input at all.)

1. Hands to Yourself

You already knew this. Wilson wouldn’t go so far as to call hair touchers “barbarians,” as you did. She puts it a little more delicately, explaining, “Some people have no home training and are just rude.”

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Her own response? “I have no problem telling people, ‘I don’t want you to touch it, but I appreciate the love.’”

She adds that touching takes a compliment to another, unpleasant level that can make a woman feel fetishized (not to mention, potentially mess up her style). So keep doing what you’re doing and use words, not hands, to express your admiration.

2. Compliment, Don’t Query

Following a compliment with an interrogation (“How do you get it like that? Who styled it? How long will it look that way? How do you wash it?”) can make a woman who was feeling appreciated switch to feeling antagonized in a matter of seconds.

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“There’s a lot of curiosity about our hair, but I think that if you have a close friend that’s black, that’s where the questions should start,” says Wilson.

3. Consider the Context

Keeping in mind a general sensitivity toward people who don’t like to be put on the spot—especially when that would mean having their racial differences highlighted—keep your compliments between you and the owner of the hair, and don’t make a scene with your praise. Keep this in mind especially in situations in which her race and gender make her a minority (think classroom or boardroom versus coffee shop). Remember that there’s a chance she styled her hair for ease, not for attention, and likely doesn’t want to publicly discuss her routine, any more than you want to detail the qualities of your favorite two-in-one shampoo-conditioner in the middle of your day. 

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Again, everyone (or almost everyone) loves a compliment. Hopefully, with these tips in mind, you can deliver them with a little more confidence.

Jenée Desmond-Harris, The Root’s associate editor of features covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. So if you need race-related advice, send your questions to racemanners@theroot.com. Follow Jenée on Twitter.

Previously in Race Manners: “Why Am I Stepping Off the Sidewalk for White People in 2014?