Go Ahead – Touch It

One of my friend recently told me that I have a knack for controversy. She said:

You pick topics no one wants to talk about, and then write it in such a way that we find ourselves reading it anyway.

Well… this is another one of those articles that might offend a few people – maybe a lot of people. But really, it’s not intentional and I hope it doesn’t offend anyone at all. Rather than provoke anger, I hope this post provokes thought, as once again, I’m voicing an unpopular opinion on an issue most people would much rather sweep under the rug.

The Tangled Mess of Hair-Politics

In Translating ‘Becky with the Good Hair’ I delved into Beyoncé’s new album to explain the history and politics all tangled up in the kinky curls of a Black woman’s hair. I also mentioned that since the album’s release, many Black women have once again chosen to embrace their natural hair as it is.

While this is a positive and healthy movement, I realise it’s also bred a near-hostility for other people’s curiosity of Black culture and Black hair. We almost want to copyright our Blackness, and restrict access; while at the same time asking people not to notice our physical differences, or judge us because of it.

In what way? Well, let’s start with the meme below.

Photo Credit: quickmeme

Risking Fingers

Over the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of African American women posting memes and other pop culture media warning non-Blacks not to touch their hair. At the time, I gave it little more than a raised eyebrow and kept on scrolling.

African American culture is vastly different from Jamaican culture, and many of the things that offend Black Americans get little more than a scoff from us. Jamaicans live in a more racially integrated culture; and Blacks are not a minority in our country. Thus, our dividing lines are more centered around gender roles and social class.

But as is typical of American culture, it permeates. And much to my surprise, I soon noticed friends from back home jumping on the bandwagon. At first, it did little more than jut my eyebrow up a little higher, but it’s gotten to a point of ridiculousness now that requires addressing.

Respecting Boundaries

I grew up understanding and respecting boundaries. I learned what room in the house I wasn’t allowed in, to knock before I entered a room, to leave my parents’ things alone, and to respect people’s personal space and homes. In fact, there is perhaps no greater advocate for self-autonomy than myself.

And if that was the basis of these Don’t Touch my Hair campaigns, I would fully support it. A woman’s body is her own and she has the right to make any and all decisions regarding it. She should decide who touches her and under what circumstances.

However, in almost every instance, when I’ve listened to Black women explain why they don’t want non-Black people coming up to touch their hair, it’s never really been about maintaining personal space.

It’s mostly about being made to feel like a public spectacle because one unfortunate White person got the idea in their heads that they want to know what Black hair feels like. It’s the awkwardness of having her difference acknowledged.

A woman has every right to feel this way – and I also retain the right to call B.S. for it.

The Curiosity of Minority Hair

The fact is that we are noticeably different from most of the people around us, and in our instance, we may even sound different too. Is it really such a bad thing to have that acknowledged?

If anything, I’m flattered when a White person comes up and sheepishly asks if they can touch my hair. It means they’re leaving all those preconceived notions behind to learn the truth. Half the time they’re blushing terribly, and preparing themselves for a harsh rejection or to soothe my offence. But why should I be offended?

Yes, my hair looks absolutely nothing like yours – and yes, you can touch it.

In fact, sometimes when I catch them staring curiously, I make the offer myself. And if one randomly came up to cop a feel – as long as they weren’t trying to be flirtatious, I really wouldn’t give a flying fig. It’s happened, and not one time did it cause offence. Caught me off guard, maybe – but then only made me laugh.

Of course it’s better to ask; it’s common decency. But in America, I think many non-Blacks can hardly speak a word on race before being branded a racist or called inappropriate, so sometimes they just go for it. This doesn’t necessarily make it okay, but in some ways, I get it.

I understand that that’s just me… and my mom.. and quite a few of my friends who don’t care; and that we can’t expect everyone else to be okay with it simply because we are. But how can I ask people to understand my culture, my differences – my Blackness – without educating them?

And as a Black woman raised in a country where naturally straight, flowing hair was not the norm, let me assure you that we were just as curious about Asian and White hair. We wanted to touch it, too! We wanted to see what it felt like, and we loved helping our one friend with the super straight hair to get her hair into a ponytail.

I’ve yet to see any Whites or Asians back home posting memes online asking Black people to stop touching – or asking to touch – their hair. And if they did, I don’t think it would go over well.

Stemming From Insecurity

Yet, I can also admit that I wasn’t always this way. Though I certainly didn’t post any memes about it or threaten anyone, I absolutely hated having my hair touched as a teen. This stemmed from a war I waged with insecurities stemming from my hair – my Black hair.

I had tried a million things to make it look “right”, and to make it socially acceptable for Catholic school and all the girls who thought I was perfectly hopeless and unworthy of owning female nether-regions. I lacked their skill and patience, and sometimes I felt like I just lacked their good genes.

Though I washed my hair every week and did my absolute best, I was uncomfortable when people wanted to touch my hair. I worried about how the texture might feel, that maybe I used too much oil or gel this morning to make it neat, or that they would – with one stroke – mess up half an hour’s worth of hard work.

If these are your reasons for not wanting your hair touched, I’ve been there and I understand. However, I don’t think projecting that onto non-Blacks for being curious about our rich heritage really solves anything.

I think it’s time we admit our insecurities and do our best to work past them. I think it’s time we help people to understand where we’re coming from and what it means to be Black by removing the copyrights we have put on our Blackness and allowing them in to explore, to understand, and to embrace our culture along with us.

However – Dear, White people (and Asians),
Don’t get your hopes up. Your best bet for now is probably not to approach a Black woman you don’t know and ask to touch her hair. But if any of you miraculously happen to see me on the streets and would like to see what dreadlocks feel like:

Go ahead – touch it.

See what locs and Black hair really feels like – and help us cut the corporate crap telling us we can’t wear our natural hair to school and work and still be honour-students and career-women.

Alexis Chateau Black Woman Natural Hair Dreadlocks.jpg

Check out the video below to see the short film that inspired the post.

As one of the spokespersons for the exhibit said:

There’s nothing wrong with being curious. But we do have to be aware of how we let our curiosities play out, and how we’re treating people as a result of that. 

58 thoughts on “Go Ahead – Touch It

  1. what a great topic. the video brings tears to my eyes. what a cruel species we can be. no matter what our background every single one of us has been guilty of some sort of faux pas – surely I’ve made more than I care to count – intention, however, is everything

    1. Thank you, Al. I’m glad to have enlightened your corner of the world, as far as our hair and the history and politics around it is concerned.

      We’ve all made mistakes, as you said. But I value the people who actually want to learn, and understand different cultures and the way we perceive things.

      Thanks again!

  2. For me, it’s mostly just weird because I don’t know the person. I don’t know if they just ate a bag of chips, locked all their fingers and now want to put their nasty fingers in my hair. But, I also don’t like people I don’t know touching me period. I’m weird like that. But, I DO appreciate people asking me first. I was at a professional event, walking upstairs and felt a hand in my hair. I did not know this woman and we had just got done eating. I wonder how she would have felt if I did that to her? I was upset, but I played it cool.

  3. It’s a shame your hairstylists where not supportive, I have heard this way too many times. It was actually my stylist who finally suggested l stayed natural, since I tended to let my keratin treatment go for months because I was either abroad or simply liked the “curls” for a little longer cof cof those where not curls lol (but at the time I liked them, now no way Im ever getting Brazilian blowouts or the likes! Nein!), my biggest concern was that I liked my hair straight as well and she was like “no problem I will flat iron it for you carefully when you need to” she never charged more or complained instead gave me the best advice she could to keep my hair healthy, etc etc and she was very good kept my hair with minimal or not heat damage at all). I know most naturals don’t like straight hair but I do, what I don’t like, now that I saw my real curls is having to hide them because society said so. I think the natural hair community eventually will make this “freedom of choice” extensive to other women, for now is an exclusive movement ( I feel excluded XD, for being a flat iron mix wce traitor lol just kidding and anyways thats ok since I did not went back to natural to be accepted or anything); but I think the basic principles of confidence and authenticity that the natural hair community advocates for are useful to women as a group, not only naturals. I think it will be wonderful the day when we stop being offended by everything and start educating and sharing the positives with everyone who would want to listen and grow with us.

  4. Always loving your posts, one curious thing that I remember from when I was in Japan and transitioning back to natural hair was this japanese woman who told me how pretty she thought my hair looked and asked permission to touch it, at the time I had never seen a meme of natural hair, norread blogs in general and had no idea it was an issue. It simply made me feel good about my decision to stop the keratin treatment and made for a great moment of cultural exchange so to speak. I agree there is a lot of insecurity and isolation/classification in the natural hair movement and I can understand why, the issue is that negativity is quite contagious and I have to admit I was a little put of by the isolation and separation I perceived from many 100% authentic black websites, but the more I read even if though I felt excluded as a non authentic black (aka mixed race, etc) it seems african american women suffer fom very intense discrimation, systematically and things like this could a way to make them feel a little bit more empowered, don’t know. Even if I do not agree with the isolation, the recovery of collective self esteem is probably a long process and the most that can be done is start conversations on difficult topics , trying to include as many viewpoints as possible. Thanks for an interesting piece.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and adding such insight to the conversation.

      You are absolutely right. In order to move forward, we must find our confidence again (which we too often confuse with arrogance and a diva mentality).

      I’m glad many more women are transitioning back to natural hair. My hair dressers did not take kindly to my decision to do that either. One blatantly told me that the natural look wasn’t in style.

      When I transitioned to locs, I actually went to a salon that specialises in that and met with them 3 months before scheduling my appointment. They were great! Now that I’ve migrated I do most of my haircare at home, by myself. I definitely don’t regret it.

  5. This was a beautiful post. My husband is African American and wears his hair naturally “poofy”. He just brushes it out into a bit of a dome every morning. I have curly hair that originates somewhere in Europe, definitely Caucasian. When we lived and worked in Asia, both of us were continually asked by friends and students if they could touch our hair and on the streets and subways, sometimes people just touched. There’s this moment of wonder that would often light up people’s eyes and then often, they would look into my eyes and I’d smile back. The same with my husband. For the most part, when permission was asked, it was a humanizing moment. When permission wasn’t asked and the person touching never looked into our faces, it felt like we were objects.

    In my experience, both in living as the only white girl in an entire city, and in the U.S. with a multiracial family, acknowledging and respecting differences goes a lot further than trying to force people to pretend they don’t see them. We are different, person to persona and family history to family history. That keeps us interesting. And yes, if your hands are reasonable clean, (no tree sap please!) you can touch my hair.

    Although, funny aside, I would usually ask my young Asian students to stop pulling the hair off my forearms after a few minutes. That was somewhat painful. Since they didn’t really have it, they didn’t understand why I had light hair there!

    Thank you for this post and a different perspective.

    1. Hi Ciara! Thanks for reading.

      It’s interesting to hear your side of the same issue. I love how you said it’s more helpful to acknowledge and respect differences than to try to force people to pretend there are no differences there.

      I’m sure you and your husband helped show many Asians what the rest of the world looks like, as they do live in a highly homogeneous society, when it comes to race.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting!

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