Last week an art exhibit opened in NYC called “You Can Touch My Hair.” It featured three black women, all with different hair styles, standing in Union Station with signs featuring those same words. It was not intended to be the start of a hair touching movement, but a social experiment to explore the widespread tactile fascination with black women’s hair. This exhibit has opened up a floodgate of controversy, debate, and counter-exhibits.
But this isn’t about the exhibit. This is about why, although you were perfectly welcome to touch those three women’s hair last week, you cannot touch mine.
1. It’s weird.
Like, why? Why do you want to touch my hair? I implore you to deeply ponder this every single time you are about to ask to touch a black woman’s hair. Do you think it’s mystical? Exotic? Are you trying to test and see if it will leave scratches on your fingers? If you think it’s beautiful by all means, please say that, but you don’t have to touch it while the words come out of your lips. If you are a TSA officer, I just want to let you know that it’s supremely irritating that I have to get pulled over for y’all to dig all up in my hair looking for weapons of mass destruction. (Like seriously, wtf.)
If you’re trying to flirt with me that’s cool, but you should probably try another method because right now you’re showing me that you don’t respect my personal space. If you’re trying to comfort me because I’m upset, how about asking if you can hug me instead. If you want to understand my hair more, maybe ask “How did you do that style?” or “What is this style called?” and I will happily launch into an explanation of my hair care regimen. Use your words.
2. Sorry, but all the rude people who came before you ruined it.
Basically, no matter how awesome and benign your reason for wanting to touch my hair or how nicely you ask, there have been literally hundreds of people before you who have been assholes about it. The random white girl who rolled up behind me while we were exiting an Econ seminar, plunged her hand into the back of my hair, and twisted it around while exclaiming to her friends “Ooooooo it feels just like cotton!” The woman in Beijing who grabbed a lock of my hair, examined it, and then asked me if it was even hair. The barber on the bus yesterday who tried to holler by calling me an Afrocentric queen and then attempting to massage my scalp. I could go on, and on, and on. So I’m going to say no. Because I’m tired of being asked, I’m extremely tired of not being asked, I’m salty about constantly being exotified, and I don’t know what your motivations are.
3. I am not an exhibit in a zoo or freak show.
Did you know White America used to actually showcase black people in zoos and freakshows? It really wasn’t that long ago. Like, there are still Americans alive who were alive when the Bronx Zoo had a whole black people exhibit. I wasn’t there, but y’all it is #toosoon for me to be surrounded by a throng of white women petting me like a dog or a bad ass but sedated lioness. (Yes, this has happened.) And y’all not even gon pay me a zoo fare? Hell naw. I am a person, like you, with hair growing out of my head, like most people. There’s nothing to get all fascinated and excited and O_O about. Calm down.
4. Shit, I can’t even touch my hair.
No, seriously. My mom cannot touch my hair. My girlfriend can only touch my hair like, the day before I wash it and I can only touch hers maaaaybe once every two weeks, right before she goes to the salon. My sheets cannot touch my hair; I wear a silk cap at night and sleep on a silk pillowcase to protect my luscious locks from the ravages of their cottony surface. You see, my hair, and the hair of many many black women, has a special characteristic- it stays where you put it. If you pat, run your hands through, or pull out a piece of naturally straight hair to examine, chances are not much will happen. If you pat my afro while it’s still drying that spot might look mushed for the next week, no matter how much time I spend desperately trying to fluff it up in the mirror every morning. If you randomly run your hands through somebody’s perfectly coifed fresh perm, it might not look the same until she goes back to the salon in two weeks. If you randomly pull out a piece of my twist-out to examine, I will look like Alfalfa from The Little Rascals until I can find the next mirror or glossy store window and rectify the situation.
No matter how wild and free and natural my hair looks to you, please understand that this morning I spent a generous amount of time making sure each lock was exactly where I wanted it to be for the day in a vain effort to make it almost pleasing to the white heteropatriarchy’s standard of beauty. Please know that I actively struggle to not touch my own hair during the day. If I can’t do it, neither can you.