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. Hi Alexis! In my opinion some black people are a little too sensitive and closed minded. if a non black person wants to touch my hair, I truly don’t mind. A lot of people that I work with at my office are always curious about my braids and the protective weaves i wear. I have allowed them to see the difference between the tracks sewed in my hair and my real hair. One hispanic lady asked me about my braids and how it was done. I kindly invited her to my sister’s braiding salon to see. she was amazed and I was happy that i was given the opportunity to show her.

    1. That is amazing Wanda, and I totally agree with you. We can’t expect people to be more open to us and understanding of our culture while simultaneously locking them out of it.

  2. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again anyway: I always enjoy reading your posts, Alex! They’re really thought-provoking and I think you have a really interesting and well-articulated perspective.

    I don’t have any Black friends here in Singapore (there are very few Blacks here, for one thing!) so I’ve never had to face a potentially awkward situation like this, but also the culture here is such that we would never dream of asking someone if we could touch their hair (unless they’re a very good friend). When I was in Fiji recently I saw Fijian women rocking their natural hair and I thought they looked awesome. I’ve always been envious of women with thick hair, because my own hair is fine and thin – so thin that balding is a genuine concern for me. 🙁

    1. Hi Michelle! I love hearing about your life in Singapore!

      There definitely are cultural differences to keep in mind, but America isn’t really a culture where it’s strange to want to touch someone’s hair. Jamaica wasn’t either. It boils down more to personal preference here.

      I can understand the envy for thick hair though. When my hair started thinning from chemically straightening it, I felt it too. That’s when I finally decided – no more – and locked my hair instead (dreadlocks). Best decision I ever made.

      I’m really glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. The funny thing, I’m Sicilian and my hair kind of “goes both ways” – it’s curly/kinky naturally but, if I take a blow dryer & iron to it I can straighten it. Thoughout life, I’ve been asked by many people “Can I touch your hair?” & Some just go right ahead & touch it.
    I’ve never gotten offended but I can sometimes relate to some black women when they say they feel like some exotic zoo animal when someone does it.
    I guess I see it from both sides in a way.

    You are always a good read, Alex. You never disappoint. <3

    1. Sicilian! Some of the most beautiful people in the world, I must say. I’ve been told (by my Spanish friends) the southern Europeans got a good touch of North African blood, which probably explains the hair. Who knows what might be up the line in your family tree?

      I can’t say anyone has yet made me feel like a spectacle for my hair. But we all react to situations differently.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I’m glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

      1. You are a sweetie. & You know your history, indeed. Sicilians are mixed with a whole bunch of things, but our people certainly did originate from that mix of North African & Southern Euro. The whites were descended from Roman slaves that got mixed in with Moorish soldiers/warriors. There’s a great blogger on here called “The Sicilian Housewife” that gets all into the history and art & culture of all that. She’s extremely knowledgable on some of our ancient culture.
        My aunt did trace our line way back as a video presentation for my uncle’s birthday years back. It was amazing to see how beautifully woven our family is/was & how deeply rooted in that land our entire line is.

        I highly recommend everyone trace their roots if possible. Somehow/someway. There aren’t words to describe how wonderful a feeling it is to know some of your backgrounds.

      2. Thank you! Back in Jamaica, many of my friends were expats of Southern European origin (mostly from Spain, few from Italy), so I learned a lot from them.

        You should send me a link to this woman’s page. Sounds like her stuff will be right up my ally! She might even inspire some posts from me.

        I traced my genetics with the help of my grandmother. I’m Black, Irish, German, and Indian. Didn’t have to look very far though. My whole family is mixed. Two grandparents on both are Indian mixes, one is an Irish mix, and and everyone’s got a touch of Black. Weird mutt I am! Haha.

  4. I’m a white woman who knows what black hair feels like as I’ve had many, many black friends through my life. (Not so many now as I’m in a part of rural Wales which doesn’t seem to attract many black people), but my take on this ‘can I touch your hair’ thing, is that really if people are friends, there’s no problem. To me – as an older person from a different generation – this thing of going up to strangers and wanting to touch them just seems wrong and disrespectful whatever a person’s race or nationality.

    So, I’m neither disagreeing or agreeing with you, just giving a tiny bit extra food for thought. But I do commend you for tackling this. It’s these sorts of topics that you write about, that made me want to follow your blog in the first place. You’re a good writer who can also think things through coherently.

    Oh and by the way, whenever I’ve had online conversations with black African-American friends they are always astonished that the intolerances that they suffer in America don’t exist as much in the UK and that black people here have a mostly different experience (and mindset, I think) from them. So when you mentioned the differences between West Indian and American experiences, I knew what you meant. The way black people are often treated in America is very like the way Native Americans were and often still are treated there.

    1. You are so right about the similarities between how African Americans and natives are treated. I was thinking about that just earlier today.

      It’s great that your Black friends let you touch their hair after a friendship was developed, but I had one commentor tell me that her black best friend wouldn’t let her anywhere near hers, not even on her wedding day. She was left out of much of the pomp and ceremony because it just still wasn’t allowed. This was her bestie!

      Of course this differs from person and to person, and I do agree that a person has a right to defend their personal space at all times. I did say that, as you saw. But drawing the line just because of race is shady to me.

      Thanks so much for commenting and I love that you enjoy joining in on the discussions of issues I tackle. 🙂

      1. My black friends were in England and they were Brits – black Brits. Most were either born in or came from the West Indies and they or their parents and families settled in England (there was a huge number of families arriving in the 1950s) and friendships developed easily between us. I read your other commenter and find the reaction of her friend very sad and actually, if it’d been me, I wouldn’t have called that person a friend after that, but we’ve all got different attitudes to our friendships, stemming from our own life experiences.

        I enjoy discussions. Sometimes I’m not up to it (health problems, mostly fatigue) but when I can – I do. 🙂

      2. Well, I suppose the West Indian culture probably explains why we’re not as sensitive to these things in the UK. Our struggles are more economic than racial back home. We don’t have time to worry about race. We’re worried about bills and food! Haha

        But yes, I do agree with you. I’m not sure how I would feel about that friend afterwards, but they seem to have managed. Forgiveness is what keeps relationships together, I’ve learned.

        I hope your health problems don’t keep you away too long, and that they’re only temporary. Get better soon!

  5. I think you hit it most spot on when touching on the subject that whether or not it’s ok to touch someone’s hair should be more about personal boundaries and space, than anything else. While I am not black, interestingly enough, I’ve experienced the “can I touch your hair” phenomena on a handful of occasions myself. I am half Cree/Ojibwe and half German. Though my hair is naturally dark brown, it’s also got a LOT of red undertones in it, and with that comes some of the trademark curly and wiry texture of a lot of red-heads. On top of that i have my Indigenous hair characteristics – super thick, lots of volume, lots of length, and grows fast. HOWEVER a little known fact is that a lot of Indigenous people only have luxurious straight shiny black hair because their hair has been oiled every night since early childhood. My hair was never oiled. So my hair is thick, curly, dry, wiry, frizzy, and has a mind of it’s own akin to the Hulk. Anyway… I’m babbling… Point is, while my skin tone reflects my German half, my hair has gone “full Native” (har har). So if I tame it into submission with a ungodly volume of oils, creams, and gels – its quite curly and cascade-y and pretty – people want to touch it. If I let it fly in all it’s 80’s hair-metal glory, people want to touch it. Simply because it’s not “what they expect” or “normal” for someone who “looks white”.

    Speaking of, I’ve already typed a huge book here, so I won’t add another 3 paragraphs ranting about how people never believe that I’m half Indigenous because I’m so pale and don’t have straight luxurious hair…. Nope, just gonna move on past that hornet’s nest.

    Anywho, thoroughly enjoyed your blog (as I have all of them so far). You have such a knack at expressing your insights in such an engaging and poised manner. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. I always look out for your response, lengthy book or no. Haha.

      I have similar disbelief regarding my own race. My family actually has pretty strong Irish roots, as well as German and Indian.

      I got the blonde body hair, and I am a natural born red head mixed with darker hues and some blonde. Of course since my African genes are most prominent I usually get a raised eyebrow when I say that. But my family is so Irish in fact that *whispers* I inherited the plantation land they once owned in Jamaica. True story. And god the taxes are high!

      Anyway, I totally get where you’re coming from and love that you can relate black or no. This is something a lot of people don’t get. It’s not because they’re black. It’s just because they’re different, and being different isn’t something we should be ashamed of.

      1. Aw, thanks – glad my responses aren’t just vapid babble, I wonder sometimes haha. You know, growing up on a reservation the way I did and seeing all sorts of different mixes in different ways – I can’t say I’d raise an eyebrow at you having naturally blonde and/or red hair. Also, I think a part of that is spending most of my life in CA. I’ve even had friends that are 100% Mexican but blonde haired and blue eyed. Of course, my own appearance vs heritage – I suppose I’m used to accepting and/or believing what my eyes don’t tell me. There’s just a myriad of ways our genes can express themselves – and people should just accept that!

        I used to be ashamed of being different. Where I grew up I was “too white” for a lot of the native people and “too native” for the white people that lived in the surrounding area. But now I think I’m pretty kickass so that’s all that matters 😀

      2. You are so right. Our genes do find odd ways of expressing themselves when we’re “mutts” haha. I don’t mind, but I can say with confidence that my natural hair colour does not suit me at all, so I dye my hair. It’s darkened over the years though, but every so often it starts going back blonde and red again – like now… We also had to blue eyed people in the family within my lifetime, owing to our German and Irish origins. Glad to know I’m not the only one who has experienced these things.

        And you grew up on a reservation? Wow! Do you have a blog post about that anywhere? I’ve always wanted to know what it’s really like. The media hardly ever does any culture justice…

      3. Yanno, no I don’t have a blog post about it… But I think that is a GREAT idea – and I’m so glad you brought it up because I’ve been feeling a little mentally dried up this week on what I want to for a post. Ask and thou shalt receive! 🙂

        I have actually never heard of someone’s natural hair color not suiting them – I’m intrigued now! At this point (dying hair) I have the opposite problem. Similar to my dad I’m going white early,. I have a huge “skunk stripe” when my hair is pulled back, and getting very near salt and pepper on the top layer when it’s down… but I won’t dye my hair because I can’t do so without wrecking it…. My hair is so.. hard? coarse? heavy duty? idk…. Anyway, it doesn’t accept dye well and they have to up the chemical levels… Which invariably makes my hair awfully dry, brittle, and ragged… so… I’m just having to accept my aging with as few tantrums as possible… But I insist I have way too much white hair for an almost 34 year old :'(

      4. I’m glad I could inspire you! Be sure to drop a link so I don’t miss the Native American post.

        My natural hair colour looks like I have been a terribly naughty child who felt it might be fun to go roll outside in the dusty road. It’s a really dusty shade of blonde stray hairs, mixed with reddish brown more obedient hair. The blondes are most unruly on my head.

        I love white hair! You should embrace it! I always wished I was one of those persons with the skunk streak. It looks so cool to me. I considered bleaching a section of my dreads to look just like that. I still might!

      5. Lol, I love the description of your hair! It in a way reminds me of my own. A I produce more and more white hair, these are even more wiry than the rest of my hair. My hair in general, if left untended, makes a halo of unruly frizz especially at the top of my head. I have a lot of “baby hairs”, mostly my fault because I pull my hair back so often that I have a lot of broken hairs and a mild case of tension baldness. My hair is in a constant state of trying to grow back – hence all of the fine baby hairs atop my head. I don’t necessarily hate the white hair – but I suppose what I do hate is that when my hair is down, the white is salted through just lightly enough to not show up in pictures as white, in so much as it just manages to make my hair look dull and lifeless if that makes sense. Overall it usually doesn’t bother me though- we’re all dealt with certain genealogical cards and we can either do something about it (like you do) or just suffer through it. I’ve toyed with dying my hair, but just have to keep reminding myself what happens to my hair when I do!

      6. I found it! And read it! I’m excited to see the series. I can’t wait to go nosing.

        I’m surprised WP didn’t notify me that you linked me in your blog post, but thank you so much. Double-checked my notifications and I didn’t miss anything. Ah well… at least I found it.

        Likes and comments seemed to be turned off though, but great post. Looking forward to more! 😉

      7. Yay! Glad you like it! Curious that it didn’t give you a notification – I wonder if it’s because I linked to just alexischateau.com and not an actual blog post? I will link to an actual post of yours in the next one, and see if that makes a difference. Curiouser that you were not able to “like” or comment – I have a few likes and 1 comment from other people on the blog… Wonder if WP is just being glitchy? Well, at any rate thanks for letting me know that you read it 🙂 Hopefully the next one won’t be so cranky for you lol

      8. I just double checked and my settings say to show the like button and to allow comments, pingbacks and trackbacks… so I don’t know what’s up… another of my friends said her comment wouldn’t go through either – and yet others are

      1. Hi Alex, thanks for wanting to follow my blog. Yes I did, because I have an external subscriber list which you will find at the bottom of every blog.

      2. I’m terrible with email subscriptions. I always delete them. I only check what shows up on WordPress in the followers section.

  6. Great piece. While I never touch anyone in any way I don’t know (I wouldn’t touch someone hair the same as I’d never touch a pregnant woman’s belly), it’s always been made very clear to me by my black women friends over the decades that I am to not ever touch their hair (even as I learned recently, the wigs! which are usually made from Indian hair!)…and the latter is what always hurt a bit, because for most of my friends it’s a sign of affection when you hug or comfort them to stroke their hair, or if they get a new cut to stroke their hair if it looks particularly shiny and gorgeous.

    I was never made so clear than when I was the one white bridesmaid in one of my closest girlfriend’s weddings back in my 20’s, and the night before, all the other (black) women were taking out my friend’s braids and I was not allowed to come near. And here I was one of her best friends. No one ever explained why and I was a pretty shy young woman back then, so I just sat there and read a magazine while everyone ignored me.

    So while I get the reason some can take offense because the meaning/intent behind it wasn’t always pure or friendly, I appreciate knowing that not everyone is as (no pun intended) black or white about it. I will always respect it, even though it still makes me sad when it comes to my friends, kind of like the “no hug” people out there (since I’m a hugger).

    1. Thank you!

      I’m surprised that even when it came to your best friend you were still not allowed to touch. That sounds like a very uncomfortable experience.

      But it’s like I said, I don’t believe these things are about defending personal space. More about a racial divide and insecurity about our hair.

      I’ve had a preference for White males since kindergarten (according to my mom lol) and one of the things I loved about them was their absolute obsession with my hair.

      If I was one of those women who blocked him out because he’s White, I’m pretty sure it would have broken his heart. Like you’ve said, it’s a gesture of appreciation and affection. I wish more of us would think of it that way. We’re always so quick to assume the worst..

  7. Hahaha! You’re so lovely and open-minded! I dated a guy from Africa and his hair DID feel really different!

    People touch my hair all the time but it’s not a race thing. I don’t mind. I recently shaved it off and people have been curious at the rate by which it is growing back for some reason.

    1. Amazing that you see that it’s not always a racial thing!

      Other black people without dreads have asked to touch mine a million times and when I meet people with dreads of a different texture and much longer than mine I usually ask to touch too. It’s just natural to want to see what something different feels like.

      Thanks for dropping by!

    1. And that’s a reasonable boundary to put up. Your hair is after all a part of your body. 16 years though! Wow. You can bet if I saw you, I’d ask to touch your hair. Haha

      1. …I take pride in the fine yarn I’ve spun… Shud u be in Honolulu ya can check as we njoi 1st round on me {aloha kisses}

      2. I would too. I’m only 2 and a half years in and extremely proud of mine, so I can only imagine. Have you ever cut yourself before? I’m still deciding how much is too much for me.

  8. Great article. I have never touched the hair of someone I don’t know, regardless of their color or hair texture. However, for those I love, I do touch their hair. I have always thought of it as a loving gesture and I am also in love with other people’s curls, they always look so much nicer than mine. Very interesting, and thank you.

    1. Thank you! It is a very loving gesture if done in an intimate way for sure. But usually you can tell they just want to know what the texture is like, and I always find it amusing. I love curly hair as well, but alas, my mom didn’t pass hers on to me haha

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