‘You Can Touch My Hair,’ But Why?

By Guest Contributor Brokey McPoverty, cross-posted from PostBourgie

The website un’ruly held a public art exhibit in New York City this weekend entitled “You Can Touch My Hair.” Three black women stood in Union Square with signs that read “You can touch my hair,” welcoming strangers to come and cop a feel. The women had different hair types:  dreadlocks, straightened hair, a big, blown-out afro.

My intent was to have a piece on this event written a couple of days ago, but getting my thoughts together has been tougher than I thought. But now that I’ve had a chance to chew on this for a while, I’ve decided that this is either some amazing real life trolling or a misguided attempt at doing something important. Or maybe both.

I’m a woman with big hair who has had many a strange, uninvited hand in her head, and so my entire body and spirit reacted to this event. There is a special kind of violation that comes with someone putting their hands on you — any part of you — without your permission. When you’re at a club and someone puts his hand on your waist or the small of your  back to get your attention. Or you’re at a work function and a happy-faced woman in a business suit sticks her hands in my hair. When someone has decided that their desire to touch you is more important than your interest in being touched, you don’t feel very much like a person. And being asked by a stranger for undeserved permission to touch part of me is exceedingly creepy.

Race is obviously big reason in why the hair-touching phenomenon is such an fraught thing, and it’s that troubling history that caused so many women to balk at this demonstration. Many on Twitter name-checked Saartjie Baartman, aka the Hottentot Venus, whose body was literally put on display for whites to gawk at. It’s an old fascination with black bodies —Look at all these ways in which you’re not white. Why aren’t you like me? Why aren’t you normal?

I understand that people are curious about things that they don’t have much experience with, but there are different types of curiosity here. There’s the “Wow, can I ask you about your hair?” kind, which I get very often from black women, and the “OMG I LOVE YOUR HAIR AND I AM GOING TO TOUCH IT WHETHER YOU WANT ME TO OR NOT” kind, which — surprise! — I get almost exclusively from white people.

Now the rebuttal here is likely that in holding signs welcoming strangers to touch their hair, the women participating are exercising autonomy in granting permission. Which is cool, but, well … why? Why should there be a safe space to satisfy that primitive curiosity without risk of scold or reprimand? Why shouldn’t acting like black people are aliens be met with some kind of corrective measure? What is gained from giving people access to do something that many feel wrongly entitled to do? Seriously: what is the point of this exercise?

The event page doesn’t give any information other than telling people when and where they can get their hands in some black hair. Intent is important, and I don’t know what the intent is here. It could have been a great chance to use satire to make a point about what the fascination with black hair feels like for black women. They could have had an old-fashioned sideshow barker with a megaphone beckoning people over to the women: Hurry, hurry! Step right up! For just $20 you can run your hands through the hair of an actual, real life black woman! Note the softness! Marvel at the sheen! Be surprised to discover that it’s just hair, and not the magical fabric of an enchanted carpet!

But there’s no context given, just the visages of black women holding signs giving strangers the discretion to touch their hair. And that’s what makes me nervous about it. Is the purpose literally to just let curious people touch black hair and wander off? Is there some sort of disclaimer given, preferably one that says “While touching our hair in this moment is fine, attempting this exercise elsewhere may result in you getting stabbed, slapped, punched, or otherwise assaulted?” Was there actual teaching done in this teachable moment, or was this simply an exercise in appeasing the privileged and entitled?

It seems like a ploy to get attention and cause a stir, which is fine. But what you do with that attention once you get it matters. The message that needs to be drilled in here isn’t that it’s okay for you to touch my hair right now in this particular space; it’s that regardless of your want to touch my hair, you have to ask first because my body is mine and what I want for it. And even more than that, I’d much rather explain to you why your fascination with my hair makes me feel like a pet or a science experiment rather than let you touch at will, because your hands in my hair doesn’t teach you anything.

At least one of the participating women is quoted as saying that she hates it when strangers touch her hair, and was participating because she wanted to be able to explain that to people. That’s awesome if you happened to be one of the people she spoke to. But it looks like most of the people interacting and discussing were other women of color, so the folks who could have really used that education didn’t get it.

So I’ve decided that this is some pretty exceptional trolling to make a few waves and hope for some constructive conversation as a byproduct. Because really, if talking was the intent, there are plenty of ways to make that happen. As it stands, this makes as much sense to me as standing outside with a sign that says “You Can Slap My Ass” in order to spark a conversation about street harassment.

  • hannah

    It seems possible that people will take away from this the completely misguided and horrendously wrong understanding that black women encourage strangers to touch their hair, as that is essentially what they seem to be doing in it this activity. Aren’t they afraid they’re going to further empower people to go around touching people’s hair, telling themselves it must be totally fine because they once saw black women encouraging random strangers to touch their hair in public? I feel like people can be pretty obtuse, and this might be a dangerous catalyst for future acts of inappropriate entitlement.

  • Bre

    I agree. When I first heard of this event, I wondered what the people touching the hair expected to feel. What a shock, black people hair actually feels like hair!

  • Jane Dempsey

    I am a half-black, half-white woman who spent most of her life in a
    predominately white community. I feel like a big miscommunication
    between black women and white women, from my perspective. Growing up, my
    white female friends were always touching each others hair. Yes, each
    others white, straight/wavy hair. Be it braiding, caressing while bored
    in class. I saw this all the way up to college! I’m not saying this is
    something that should keep white people “off the hook”. I believe there
    is a healthy element of curiosity with the “other” and privilege that
    goes into these breaches of privacy. Yet every time this “Don’t touch my
    hair!” subject comes up (which, by the way, I agree–people shouldn’t
    touch my hair!), I feel like there is an element of freedom from some
    white cultures, with ANYONE’S hair or body. A lot of white people can
    think, “If I can play with my [white] friend Lucy’s hair in class, why
    can’t I touch this afro? I’m just curious!” Without realizing that is
    doesn’t go both ways, that black society deals with generations of
    reprimands and persecution if we were ever “just curious” about just
    around EVERYTHING. I can’t tell you how many times a customer at my old
    retail job would grab me or a coworker’s hand after helping them! (any
    co-worker of mine, including white women AND men).

    Some people totally have no sense of boundaries and personal space, smh.

    • Shawnteal Peery Parlette

      But those are usually friends or at least close acquaintances right? My (white) husband touching my hair is one thing, a person I have no more than a passing relationship with is just infuriating. I know you’re not trying to make excuses for anyone but I think that that is important to note.

      • nicthommi

        One thing I appreciate is that despite currently living in an area that doesn’t have a lot of people and having one friend circle (from grad school) that has only 1 other black person(who always wears straight weaves or braids) and a LOT of people from places that don’t have black people, none of them has asked to touch my hair (even if it is very different from theirs, and different from how I wore it in grad school where we all met), and the one time I was out with one of them and a stranger did try to grab it, she was as angry as I was that he’d be so bold.

        It’s interesting how some people feel entitled and others seem to accept that our differences are equal (so I’m not reaching out to feel your pin straight hair or ask you why your eyes look different from mine).

        The people who try to dive in b/c they find it “cool” have always been strangers. If I catch you, I will grab your hand and push it away from my head, and I make no apologies for that.

        Compliment all you want, but keep your hands to yourself.

        One thing I hate about this exhibit is that we are incorrectly and frequently viewed as a monolith means that many people will take a few women allowing them to touch their hair in a “controlled” environment to mean that they have permission in general. I also dislike the way they act like we are a different species or make those stupid comments like “do you wash it, how do you cut it” or the inevitable “it’s so soft” as if it was going to feel like tree bark or something.

        The only people I’d ever consider let touching my hair are children, but I’ve only been asked twice (and I made sure each knew that if they touched my hair I was going to touch theirs).

        It’s been touched in some foreign countries but I will NEVER allow anyone to treat me like an alien in my own damn country.