Unusual events occur in New York’s Union Square all the time, and this past Thursday and Saturday were no different. An exhibit took place on these days in which black women posed as hair models donning signs that read: “You can touch my hair”; an invitation to all people, but especially white people, to come and touch black hair of different types and textures, including relaxed, natural and loc’d. The aptly named event, “You Can Touch May Hair,” hosted by Antonia Opiah, founder of Un-ruly.com was a social experiment intended to open a dialogue between black people and non-black people about the mysteries of black hair.
Many people, however, did not take kindly to the experiment's premise. In addition to several people expressing their opposing opinions through social media, many others attended the event in protest, carrying signs that read, “you can’t touch my hair, but you can kiss my ass,” and “I am not your Sarah Baartman.” Learn more about Sarah Baartman here. I can understand the opposition; as a black woman, I made the decision to stay as far away from Union Square as possible during that time.
This exhibit elicited feelings of discontent for the simple fact that despite many (white) people feeling as if we now live in a post-racial society, there are many facets of thought that leave black people constantly wary of the curiosities of white people and other non-black people. The very notion that such an event even took place is proof we don't live is a post-racial society.
Many black people wonder, as I did: Why are so many white people curious about black hair, but do not have the same curiosity in getting to actually know a black person? Additionally, why are white people suddenly so curious about black hair when we live in a society that upholds a Eurocentric standard of beauty and has already decided that anything Afrocentric is "inferior?"
Many young white girls and women find it perfectly OK to go on YouTube and make fun of black people, especially black women and their hair. I recently discovered a video by two white teenagers who insisted that black women were jealous of them and their real hair because most black women wear weaves. You can watch that video here. This isn’t the first time a video of this nature has surfaced, and I’m certain it won’t be the last. This also brings to mind the Don Imus incident, in which the radio personality referred to players of the Rutgers University women's basketball team as "nappy headed hoes."
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While I’m certain that not all white people, or non-black people, think like this, there are honestly far too many to ignore. So many white people insist they see beyond race, yet they have no black friends, nor do they even know any black people who they can respectfully ask questions about black hair, or ask to touch their hair. Opiah’s experiment stemmed from an op-ed she wrote for the Huffington Post detailing what it was like to be a black woman who has experienced the curiosity of white strangers asking, “can I touch your hair?” and was none too pleased when some took the opportunity to get a little too hands on. This is actually how many white people experience black hair for the first time -- either by tugging on a random black woman's hair in public, or if they do happen to ask, they go too far and make the woman feel uncomfortable.
Many people forget that the act of touching another person's hair or head tends to be very intimate. Consider that a person is most likely to have another run fingers through their hair in a moment of passion, or is likely to have someone stroke their hair in comfort. Then consider how sticking your hand in and rifling through a stranger's hair is in fact a direct violation of personal space.
We can also consider that women of any race with remarkable hair of any kind -- exceptionally long, or particularly full and healthy -- may elicit equally curious responses and queries to touch, and they are well within their right to take offense to other people thinking their curiosity trumps the woman's personal comfort. That said, many black women, myself included, would have no problem with a person of a different race touching their hair, provided that they knew the person and the person asked first. Regardless of whether hair is just hair, when then person underneath that hair is not acknowledged, there's a problem.
The fascination behind black hair is understandable. Black people for the most part have hair largely different than the rest of the world population. Black hair can do a lot of things hair of others races cannot. I have had many white friends that lament about their "plain" hair that falls limp and doesn’t really do anything special -- their words, not mine. But black hair is malleable and versatile. It can literally be long one day and short the next. It can go from curly to straight and back in a matter of hours. It can be shaved short or grown out long. It can be loc’d, weaved, and relaxed. It can be kinky, curly, kiny-curly, wavy, and even naturally straight, and can have many different textures in between those textures, all on the same head. Many black women themselves have yet to figure out all of the things their hair can do, which is another major issue this experiment fails to address. In a response to a comment on her web site advertising the You Can Touch My Hair event, Opiah said:
“We’re not specifically looking to aid black women; our goal is to start a dialogue around the fascination of black hair as well as to reduce the unfamiliarity of black hair to non-blacks.”
This struck me. That with this experiment, at a time when many black women are only just coming to terms with and learning to love their hair, we are effectively removed from the equation about our hair. Many black women's contention at this experiment is it inadvertently says -- this (your hair) is not about you, it’s about white people, their feelings and their comfort, and it gives white people permission to care only about black hair and not about black people.
If anything, Opiah got her wish in that people (like me) are opening the discussion about black hair and what non-black curiosity largely implies. I propose that if we are to move toward this proposed “post-racial” society, it is important that white people not view black people, or any persons of color for that matter, as a collection of novelty features that they can ingest as media and then return to their own lives. What I see as an effective post-racial society is not one where we ignore color, but is one were racial differences are a catalyst for social congruity, and not the segregation that remains commonplace. Perhaps in such a society, no black women would have an issue with a white person asking: "Can I touch your hair?"