Black women let strangers touch their varying manes for a social experiment in New York City recently. The exhibit, “You Can Touch My Hair”, was masterminded by blogger Antonia Opiah.
Before the exhibit, Opiah wrote a Huffington Post column highlighting intersections of hair, race, culture and exposure. The post addressed people’s fascination with Afro-textures, and her experiment inspired mixed responses.
Some wondered why only black women were included. Others questioned the cleanliness of letting random fingertips tango with these women’s tresses. In response, other black women held “You Can’t Touch My Hair” signs.
On Opiah’s site, un-ruly.com, she said, “Sometimes we have to get comfortable in being uncomfortable to really break ground.” And hair is deep. It’s especially deep for black people, many socialized to believe ours is a chore and symbol of opposition. Sometimes a fro is a soul-power revolution. Sometimes it is un-straightened hair.
Many blacks grew up with a steady media diet that did not present positive visuals of the Diaspora’s diversity. Too readily tokens or taken out of the mainstream narrative altogether, race-rooted questions linger. Hair is a part of racial identity.
But, education is often navigated uncomfortably. For You Can Touch My Hair, many stressed the unfairness for a demographic of less than 15 percent in the nation to be responsible for teaching black hair –and by extension blackness—to strangers on the sidewalk.
The experiment falls somewhere between practical, pedagogical and petting zoo. It reminds many of America’s need for in-house race work. When a multiracial Cheerios commercial elicits intolerable hate, actors of color portraying fictional characters in the Hunger Games infuriates racist readers, and some states regulate hair braiders with expensive cosmetology schemes that don’t include black hair training, unfinished business remains.
As the United States’ demographics continue becoming tanner, browner and blacker, some hope that exposure of this type will become a transcendent learning opportunity. However, that learning is responsibly juxtaposed with sensitive histories of black women, whose bodies and spaces have not always been held historically sacred. Remember Saartjie Baartman and Henrietta Lacks?
You Can Touch My Hair is an effective discourse tool. Whether it fetishizes black women by caving to the curiosities of ill-informed others, or renders questions moot and allows people to move on, is a matter of perspective. Both sides present valid critiques.
As a child, I barely understood the kinky, curly mass on my head. When I stopped getting relaxers, my mom stopped her creamy crack, too. She said that she couldn’t teach me that my hair is beautiful while keeping hers unnaturally straight.
But, I also attended multicultural magnet and performing arts public schools. Multiracial and multi-ethnic sleepovers were popular in elementary. My Sweet 16 looked like a Captain Planet episode.
As a child, I played in my friend’s hair. She is a Filipina, whose shiny black mane is thick, coarse and straight—a combination I didn’t know existed for brown girls beyond Just For Me boxes. She consented.
Other black girls played in their non-black friends’ hair. Yes, many of us were taught that our manes were to be put away, and that other hair was better. Societal, familial and mental factors undergird these beliefs. A subset of African psychology, hair mis-orientation, addresses unfavorable mindsets that some blacks have about their natural hair.
For various reasons, though, people are learning. Technology and openness help. Academics, cultural critics, bloggers, writers and readers call attention to outmoded and exclusive ideals. That You Can Touch My Hair happened means there was an audience, premise and participants for it. The exhibit is largely the business of those directly involved.
Regardless, let’s be real. Hair petting does not beget post-racialism and cross-cultural kumbayas. Common sense should be used. Some women’s willingness to talk and teach should not be mistaken as a universal follicular free-for all. Permission precedes touching.