Can I Touch Your Hair?

Q: Can I touch your hair?

A: Can you touch my hair? Did you really just ask me if you could touch my hair? My African diasporic hair that you have devalued through your ads for straight long blond hair? The hair that you have invented countless products to, “curl-I-cure”, to chemically straighten with lye, to singe with the hotcomb. You mean you want to touch the hair that you call nappy, coarse, black, “natural”? OH, so you want to touch my hair because of all the styles that it can hold, or all of the volume that it has, or the shape of the Afro it takes when not disturbed. You want to touch the hair that has come from a race of people so deeply connected to mother earth that our hair resembles that of the roots of trees. Ok, I understand, you want to touch my beautiful Afrocentric hair because now that you have gotten over your shock of the “Black is beautiful movement,” and the huge Afro’s of the Black Panthers and everything political my hair embodies, I am “acceptable,” my differentness makes me exotic, and my hair adds to my otherness which you buy up, sterilize, and place into your ziploc bag of “diversity” and take to work and show your friends. I know why you want to touch my hair; it is to see what it feels like, if it smells like shampoo, if the grease in it will stain your hands. You want to touch my hair to cement in your mind that I am always the other, but that it is okay, because “we’re past all the racial stuff, right…” Wrong! Here in America my hair has never been valorized, and as you watch that Herbal Essence ad and see hair like yours, long and blonde and shiny and thick, YOUR standard of beauty is certified, validated, and confirmed, while mine is thrown to the wayside. So for the last time, let me tell you, NO you cannot touch my hair. It is not some animal on display in a zoo for public critique. My hair is my hair, is MY hair. So no, miss, you cannot touch my hair.

Oh, and by the way, they’re twists, not dreads.

Alex & all my other sisters

I wrote this piece during my sophomore year based on a writing prompt given to my Afro-Latin@ History and Culture class final class assignment. We were to create a postcard that had the visual representation of an answer to the question, “does race still matter in the U.S.?” as well as the written answer on the other side of the card. To this day I still think about that question and wonder, does race still matter in America? Do we really live in a post-racial society? As you can see, I clearly think that race played, and still plays, an enormous role in social norms, and the relationships people forster between one another, whether they’re intimate, or social relationships.

The way I wear my hair has always been one of convience. I needed a style that was cute, and functional. As a student, I didn’t have the time to spend messing around with my hair, therefore twists provided me with the comfort, ease of style, and cute factor I was looking for. My twists were unique though, seeing as I use “mambo” hair, which adds an additional spring to the twists. These twists were, and still are the epicenter of much fascination, and debate as to whether these twists really were my hair. They also have colored the relationships I form with people, and inform my world view. What can I say, my hair relaly is important to me!  have been wearing my hair in twists since my sophomore year of high school (as I mentioned in a previous blog post) however, a number of old white women became extremely fascinated with my twists my second year at Hamilton, and without asking, or probably any thought to their actions, they would reach out and pet my hair. To me, this was a huge intrusion of my personal space, and felt like another slap in the face for being a Black woman in a predominantly white atmosphere. Maybe I was reading too much into the racial and historical significnce that hair plays between white women touching black women’s hair without permission. Or maybe I felt that this action debunked the whole idea of a post-racial soceity, and simply reaffirmed that she and I were “interensically” different. Whatever the case, these intentional, persmissionless, hair touching incidents stayed with me, and came to a head when I wrote the above text for my final post-card project.

After writing the postcard, and leaving it on display in the library for half a semester, the question, “can I touch your hair?” has forced me to take a closer look at why Black American women are so protective of their hair, especially against white women? Or really, white people in general. Maybe it’s just me making a mountain out of a mole hill, but I am postive other black women share my dislike of being treated like a petting zoo when it comes to their hair. However, back to my main point. It’s possible that we don’t want to have to subject ourselves to answering the arsenal of questions we regularly get from non-black people? “Do you wash your hair? How do you wash your hair? Do you use shampoo? Why do you put oil in your hair? Can you do my hair like your’s?” And the list of questions continues… Why is there such mystery and evasion in the world of Black hair?

Yesterday, as I walked along Burkit Road towards the train station, thoughts of hair and different hair styles floated though my brain, until the strangest thing happened; Someone asked to touch my hair. I was waiting at the intersection for the appropriate gap between cars, motorcycles, buses and autorickshaws to make my mad dash for the other side, when I head the faintest, most timid “can I touch your hair?” come out of the lips of the tall and slender Indian woman to my right. I was at first shocked, stunned, and taken aback by her question. What would I say? my first instinct was to say no. I was tired from a long day at the office, and didn’t really feel like being touched, or answering any questions about my hair. However, when I looked at her and saw the sincerity, and honest, infantile curiosity in her eyes, I said yes. She hadn’t even raised her hand to touch my hair before receiving verbal confirmation to stoke the forbidden territority of a Black woman’s hair. As she ran her fingers through my twisties, her eyes twinkled with deligiht (although it may have been the reflection of the light coming from the overhead street lamp). Whatever the case, she was awe struck.  Midway through bouncing my curls, she bagan to giggle and asked me if I was Indian, and when I said “no” and offered no furher explination concerning where I am from, she said, “oh, well I though you were Indian”. Then she said, “thank you, goodbye”, and proceeded to dash through the oncoming traffic and safely arrive on the other side to continue her walk to the bus junction.

I was so stunned by this minute long interation, that I nearly forgot I was standing in the street, and needed to get across before some bus came hurdling down the lane and hit me. When I was safely on the other side I couldn’t help but chuckle, and think about how interesting that whole interaction had been. When she asked to touch my hair, I didn’t feel as though she was confriming I was different, and therefore less than her equal, but that she just wanted to see and feel what different textures of hair felt like. It was her way of fostering a human connection, and getting to know someone different from her. When I got home that evening, my whole concept of the question “can I touch your hair?” changed. Touching someone elses hair doesn’t have to be such a big deal. In fact, it can be quite comforting and a kind gesture. When fueled by the right reasons, it’s alright to ask, can I touch your hair?

That being said, can I touch your hair?

Have any interesting hair stories, or incidences that someone touched your hair without permission? Share them below and comment on this post!


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