‘You Can Touch My Hair,’ But Why?

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The website un’ruly held a public art exhibit in New York City this weekend entitled “You Can Touch My Hair.” Three black women stood in Union Square with signs that read “You can touch my hair,” welcoming strangers to come and cop a feel. The women had different hair types:  dreadlocks, straightened hair, a big, blown-out afro.

My intent was to have a piece on this event written a couple of days ago, but getting my thoughts together has been tougher than I thought. But now that I’ve had a chance to chew on this for a while, I’ve decided that this is either some amazing real life trolling or a misguided attempt at doing something important. Or maybe both.

I’m a woman with big hair who has had many a strange, uninvited hand in her head, and so my entire body and spirit reacted to this event. There is a special kind of violation that comes with someone putting their hands on you — any part of you — without your permission. When you’re at a club and someone puts his hand on your waist or the small of your  back to get your attention. Or you’re at a work function and a happy-faced woman in a business suit sticks her hands in my hair. When someone has decided that their desire to touch you is more important than your interest in being touched, you don’t feel very much like a person. And being asked by a stranger for undeserved permission to touch part of me is exceedingly creepy.

Race is  obviously big reason in why the hair-touching phenomenon is such an fraught thing, and it’s that troubling history that caused so many women to balk at this demonstration. Many on Twitter name-checked Saartjie Baartman, aka the Hottentot Venus, whose body was literally put on display for whites to gawk at. It’s an old fascination with black bodies —Look at all these ways in which you’re not white. Why aren’t you like me? Why aren’t you normal?

I understand that people are curious about things that they don’t have much experience with, but there are different types of curiosity here. There’s the “Wow, can I ask you about your hair?” kind, which I get very often from black women, and the “OMG I LOVE YOUR HAIR AND I AM GOING TO TOUCH IT WHETHER YOU WANT ME TO OR NOT” kind, which — surprise! — I get almost exclusively from white people.

Now the rebuttal here is likely that in holding signs welcoming strangers to touch their hair, the women participating are exercising autonomy in granting permission. Which is cool, but, well… why? Why should there be a safe space to satisfy that primitive curiosity without risk of scold or reprimand? Why shouldn’t acting like black people are aliens be met with some kind of corrective measure? What is gained from giving people access to do something that many feel wrongly entitled to do? Seriously: what is the point of this exercise?

The event page doesn’t give any information other than telling people when and where they can get their hands in some black hair. Intent is important, and I don’t know what the intent is here. It could have been a great chance to use satire to make a point about what the fascination with black hair feels like for black women. They could have had an old-fashioned sideshow barker with a megaphone beckoning people over to the women: Hurry, hurry! Step right up! For just $20 you can run your hands through the hair of an actual, real life black woman! Note the softness! Marvel at the sheen! Be surprised to discover that it’s just hair, and not the magical fabric of an enchanted carpet!

But there’s no context given, just the visages of black women holding signs giving strangers the discretion to touch their hair. And that’s what makes me nervous about it. Is the purpose literally to just let curious people touch black hair and wander off? Is there some sort of disclaimer given, preferably one that says “While touching our hair in this moment is fine, attempting this exercise elsewhere may result in you getting stabbed, slapped, punched, or otherwise assaulted?” Was there actual teaching done in this teachable moment, or was this simply an exercise in appeasing the privileged and entitled?

It seems like a ploy to get attention and cause a stir, which is fine. But what you do with that attention once you get it matters. The message that needs to be drilled in here isn’t that it’s okay for you to touch my hair right now in this particular space; it’s that regardless of your want to touch my hair, you have to ask first because my body is mine and what I want for it. And even more than that, I’d much rather explain to you why your fascination with my hair makes me feel like a pet or a science experiment rather than let you touch at will, because your hands in my hair doesn’t teach you anything.

At least one of the participating women is quoted as saying that she hates it when strangers touch her hair, and was participating because she wanted to be able to explain that to people. That’s awesome if you happened to be one of the people she spoke to. But it looks like most of the people interacting and discussing were other women of color, so the folks who could have really used that education didn’t get it.

So I’ve decided that this is some pretty exceptional trolling to make a few waves and hope for some constructive conversation as a byproduct. Because really, if talking was the intent, there are plenty of ways to make that happen. As it stands, this makes as much sense to me as standing outside with a sign that says “You Can Slap My Ass” in order to spark a conversation about street harassment.

Brokey McPoverty

Brokey McPoverty, aka Tracy Clayton, is a writer and humorist from Louisville, KY. She currently writes for BuzzFeed and lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.

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  • Re: the effectiveness of this whole stunt…

    So even if the women holding up signs as part of this grant folks permission to touch their hair, it doesn’t follow that any of the non-participants who would presumably be watching and looking on would look charitably upon the people who availed themselves of the opportunity. That permission ain’t taking place in a vacuum.

    Even in this context, you’d have to be a particularly clueless/audacious person to touch someone’s hair.

    • That’s an interesting way of looking at it – but would the people doing the touching be aware of any kind of social censure from onlookers? Seems to me if you’re bold enough to stick your hands in someone’s hair you’re not really to concerned with what other people think of it. I also wonder if an onlooker would openly express disapproval. I might have been interesting to be in the crowd around this thing just to see what kind of conversations were popping off, if any.

      • Right.

        The more interesting interactions probably would have been one degree removed from the toucher-touchee, uh, dyad.

  • Nai

    When I saw this, I thought to myself…”now had these been white women with the same signs, THAT would be interesting,” since I can’t recall a time in my life that I have ever wanted to run my fingers through my white friends’ hair without purpose i.e. plaiting, or as a demonstration of affection. And why? because people aren’t pets, and aren’t objects to gawk at. Giving permission to people who already feel they have access to black women’s bodies seems a little odd and sadly desperate if you think about it. This going through the motions of permission-granting only illustrates to me an understood, underlying desire/need to assert autonomy of our bodies–but being forced to settle for social graciousness instead. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve been fucking done with placating for a while now.

    • “This going through the motions of permission-granting only illustrates to me an understood, underlying desire/need to assert autonomy of our bodies–but being forced to settle for social graciousness instead. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve been fucking done with placating for a while now.”


  • Gotta comment. I’m a white middle-aged woman with long hair, and I’m fascinated by hairstyles, esp of longer hair. I’m plain – dress plain, no makeup, nothing – my only vanity is my hair – and half the time it’s pulled back into a pony tail or pinned up in a twist. But I squeal during movies and tv shows, wondering HOW they did those braids, twists, hairstyles – wondering if it’s something I can learn. I also often stop people (Yes, including men who have long hair) of all colors and ethnicities to comment on how beautiful I find their hair, and if possible, I ask them how they did the hairstyle. I don’t believe I’ve EVER touched anyone’s hair – and I ask people about hair all the time, just because I honestly DO love different styles and think they’re beautiful.
    I worked as a volunteer at Indy Pride a couple days ago, and asked MANY women about their hairstyles – and I was so touched by the ones who took time to answer – I also want them to HEAR the compliments, believe I mean them. Had a lovely interaction with a black woman close to my own age, who reached out and helped show me on my hair the twisting motions she used to create her look. I never step into others’ spaces, so worried about respect and distance – but she was SO kind about this, I was touched.

    I’d have to know someone very well to ask to touch hair – and even then, it wouldn’t be curiosity, it would be about wanting to learn to do a braid or to share comfort. I find it very comforting and companionable if someone offers to braid my hair, etc. But I believe I know enough never to disrespect someone – I hope!

  • n/a

    Giving people permission to touch their hair just validates their culture’s position that they are different, freakish, things to be stared at. Hair is hair, regardless of the style or texture. They did this kind of thing in the 17th century when men like Walter Raleigh brought back Indians from Guyana for Europeans to stare and gawk at. It’s time people stopped making such a big deal about their differences.

  • I’m still holding out hope that is the first part of a two part art exhibit in which they display the photos of people touching their hair entitled, “I’m Curious Why You’re Curious”

  • Hugh Madson

    Like I said on twitter: since this is indeed a thing, Black folks should then be allowed to go to white people’s bathrooms to see if there are washcloths in them. Invasive meets invasive.

    Oh, and preemptively not here for anecdotes from white women on how people of color have asked to touch their hair too. Just want to go ahead and shut that down quick fast.

  • Hugh Madson

    Let’s rehash it, damn it! Just like this exhibit is….

  • Pingback: ‘You Can Touch My Hair,’ But Why? « PostBourgie | ... but I digress()

  • White woman here. Great article. I attended this event – your criticisms are on point. Your response along with the responses of many other women have offered the opportunity to learn more about this experience from black women. I only wish more white women were listening. Thank you for adding your voice to this dialogue.

    I wrote my take on the event here: http://ow.ly/lVbjP

  • As Brokey points out, there aren’t many white women depicted in the clip taking these women up on the offer to fondle black hair. I wonder if this is because part of the allure of touching a black woman’s hair is that one generally does it at the black woman’s expense, either from lack of consent or by bringing unwanted attention to her. If permission is granted, then part of that allure fades. I think this project is worthwhile precisely because so few white women were interested in touching the hair when solicited to do so in a public space. It says something about intention, and the ways that asking to touch a person’s hair, or just doing it without asking, is an assertion of power. To that extent, I don’t agree that giving permission has to be about being gracious. It can also be a challenge.

    • Ah. Never thought of it that way.

      My sense was that the wariness to step forward was because the hair-touching exchange is usually not a spectacle when it goes down; there are lots of one-on-one interactions that become more fraught when there’s an audience.

  • Pingback: Who Gave You Permission?: “You Can Touch My Hair” Experiment Sparks Debate | Hearts Converse()

  • Maya

    Just learning about this event. I came to it after stumbling on Opiah’s article on The Huffington Post, which pre-dated the experiment: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/antonia-opiah/can-i-touch-your-hair_b_3320122.html

    I’m also making my way through the eye-opening reddit message board mentioned in the article. With the exception of rather difficult phase between ages 12 and 22, my hair has always been natural. Whether it was my mother’s artistic cornrows worn as a child or the two strand twists I’ve worn for the past 17 years; like many of you, people white and black have always expressed curiosity about my hair. Among black friends it has involved questions, compliments and the request to touch. Among black strangers questions, compliments and the occasional request to touch. Among white friends interest is expressed with compliments an occasional question and the request to touch.

    I’m a girl who likes her personal space and it’s written all over my body language. Even my friends, feel the need to ask first. There a few friends with whom I let my barriers down and they know they have a green light to take liberties…everyone else can see I’m pretty much a ‘No Tresspassing Zone’. As for white strangers, their curiosity usually starts with a compliment and ends with a request to touch, which I tend to grant if in the mood. I tend to go into my Teacher Across The Great Divide mode with white people, ’cause Lord knows most of them need the help. And I respect their interest in learning something about black women and having the guts to approach me in spite of my Keep Off The Grass mien. Most people are respectful. But I’ve noticed two types of ‘Permission to touch, Sir!, people; those whose hand is already hovering around my air space before the words are out of their mouths and those who keep their hands to themselves. Then there are the grabbers, which…’nuf said.

    I loved this exhibit, the signs held up by the models ‘You Can Touch My Hair’, illustrated an important component…permission, as in, you need it because I’m an individual with the inalieble right for you to keep your dang hands off me. Further emphasizing the need for permission and the fact that black women are not monolithic, was the protest across the street by other black women, some carrying signs reading’ I’m not your Sarah Baartman’.

    The best thing about the exhibit, is that it helped open a dialogue across the racial divide. Given the fact white people aren’t going anywhere, isn’t that a good thing?