On Writing About Race and Racism

When Charles Waters and I starting writing CAN I TOUCH YOUR HAIR? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship, it felt like diving out of an airplane. We're just regular people – not experts about systemic racism – not experts on anything. 

So right away we knew we just had to be ourselves and be willing to make mistakes. Our goal was to bring to kids a way to talk about race and racism in an open, accepting way. We decided our job was to share our experiences and raise questions – not necessarily provide answers.

As we've traveled across the U.S. sharing this book, we've been learning right along with our readers.

Wealthy Elementary
(Grand Rapids, MI)
In Michigan, at East Grand Rapids Middle School, we learned that our language about striving for “tolerance” was outdated. What we're aiming for is belongingness – for all children.

We learned about micro-aggressions – which are small, often overlooked ways people are cruel to each other.

We learned students mostly want to be heard – so our job is to listen.

At the University of Alabama, we learned how asking someone, “Can I touch your hair?” is related to the issue of consent – which is related to #MeToo and how to empower girls in the face of sexual harassment: everyone has the power to say NO.

P.S. 15, New York City
In Brooklyn at Co-Op School -Joyful Learning, we learned using the language “boys and girls” to greet students is not as inclusive as addressing them as “second graders” or “learners” or “readers.”

In Hattiesburg, Mississippi in a session with Leah Henderson, author of ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL, I shared what we've learned about how these conversations can be assisted by the following:

1. Choosing not to be offended
2. Instead of beating yourself up over a mistake and saying, "what was I thinking?" instead say, "what was I learning?"

We're so thrilled to be continuing this conversation with readers of all ages... take a look at our padlet of art and poems inspired by the book. Thank you for joining us on this adventure!

Made with Padlet

Irene Latham is an Alabama author of more than a dozen current and forthcoming poetry, fiction and picture books for children and adults, including Leaving Gee's Bend, 2011 ALLA Children's Book of the Year and Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship (with Charles Waters). Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, she also serves as poetry editor for Birmingham Arts Journal. irenelatham.com


  1. Love this book Irene and the wonderful lessons it teaches.

  2. Did you ever imagine all that would rise up from this book? Awesome and amazing!

  3. Thanks for sharing these lessons learned with us here. I'm never going to greet a group of kids as "girls and boys" again. There are so many things we don't know. . . until the moment when someone takes the trouble to teach us.

  4. Your book sounds FABULOUS, too!

  5. I love your openness and willingness. What a fantastic book AND tour.


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