Touching hair for many black women I know or whose experiences I have read about in forums are that of objectification. I have personally had requests more times than I can count from people to touch my hair when I had long braids and when I shaved my hair. I understand the fascination many have to touch something they deem interesting or different. The need to touch might stem from curiosity to know what that type of hair feels like compared to what they are accustomed to. I initially was apprehensive because I was suspected some of them of negative intent (who knows maybe there were or maybe they were just my insecurities). Also, I didn’t think my hair was so unnatural or different looking that someone had to touch it to understand what it was. But I became more understanding when friends or people who ask me. I recently had one of my friends tell me she wanted to touch my hair because it looked like a teddy bear “fuzzy and soft.” When I had braids this same person (who wasn’t a friend at the time) told me it looked like spider legs and she was afraid to touch it (hahaha I know…I prefer my friends honest).
The truth is this fascination with touching black hair my many and apprehension and acceptance of it by many back women is interesting. Many have been misinformed about black hair and most don’t typically see an black man or woman walk down the street with a big afro. Or hear stories about how black women cannot grow long hair and always wear wigs or about the hair cleaning habits.
In June earlier this year, Antonia Opiah, founder of Un’ruly held an exhibition in New York City’s Union Square called “You Can Touch My Hair.” The exhibition was made up three women with different hair textures and styles. The purpose of the project was to get strangers to touch their hair. Although I think it is an honest attempt to bring awareness to black hair and normalizing it by allowing others to touch it. But isn’t it orientalizing black hair further by putting them on display and asking people to touch it because of its difference. What do you think? Click the image below to the video and the Huffington Post article.
Ofcourse there were other women who showed up to protest the exhibit. They shared my opinion of the project treating black women like petting zoos and accused the organizers of the exhibit of this being a recreating of the Sara Baartman exhibit. These women believed that allowing these strangers to touch their hair without providing proper education of black hair would further the problem and allow more strangers to feel like it is acceptable to go touch any black women’s hair without her permission.
Here is a link to their video. Click on the image. Skip to 2:20.
I also browsed the comment section of articles online on this issues to find what black women think of this issue and here are some screenshots:
Said on Fros
Although many black women are fine with a strangers asking to touch their hair, others are not pleased with their objectification. By asking to touch her hair, you are in fact admitting that there is something interestingly odd about her hair in relation to your. This othering does not sit well with many black women because the orientalising of their hair as different or in some cases abnormal have implications of how they wear their hair to interviews, at work or in public. The discourse surrounding black hair is so ingrained in the US culture via movies, the wigs clown wear, etc.
Some black women choose to satisfy the curiosity of strangers who ask because they view hair as hair and are quite proud to show it off. Other say no because of being unsure of where the person’s hands has been. Some refuse to do it because they refuse to be a petting zoo for others who view their features as strange and weird…or something that needs to be figured out.
In my previous post I talked about how this discourse was produced and its effects. My next post will be on how these messages concerning black hair are encoded and decoded using Hall’s theory.