The first time it happened, I was in the lobby of a casino at a Lake Tahoe Resort passing the time before departing after a week of skiing. Out the blue a woman proclaimed,“Your hair is so beautiful! May I touch it?” her hand moving steadily towards the braids that fell just below my shoulder blades.
Life inside my little bubble hadn’t sufficiently prepared me for such an encounter. “Uh, thank you, sure,” I stammered. After the moment passed, an older friend who was with me stared daggers at the woman’s back as she walked away. My friend, shaking her head muttered, “Touching your hair. People have some nerve.”
Over the years, I have occasionally thought back on the experience, often doubting whether allowing that woman to touch my hair was the right thing to do. Had I, however inadvertently, furthered patterns of behavior that are simply outside the bounds of normal and acceptable social conduct?
To this day, I remain ambiguous, but twenty years later with a head full of waist length, all natural, cultured locks, I have my grown-up answer to the ever inevitable question dialed in. With a slow shaking of my head, my simply stated, “No, I don’t think so” typically does the trick. Some of the requestors show embarrassment, some confusion and others get a little upset (angry, indignant, the usual array of responses from the perceived sense of public humiliation). Better them than me.
I suspect that it is precisely the question of what motivates people to literally want to reach out and touch someone, a perfect stranger, and grope her hair that prompted Antonia Opiah of Un’ruly.com to stage her NYC Exhibition, “You Can Touch My Hair” in early June. In the exhibit, three black American women sporting different natural hair styles stood and held signs that read, “You can touch my hair.” A number of passersby took them up on the invitation to touch, caress and otherwise engage in the tactile experience of putting their hands in, on and through the models’ hair.
In Opiah’s article about the event, published in the Huffington Post, she voices several theories (not all of them her own) about the motivation behind those who inquire, either at this exhibit or in the normal course of their daily lives. The speculation ranged from feelings of racial superiority and white privilege (buy clear band-aids and move on, people), to some sense of ownership of black people’s bodies.
I think the answer is much less sinister and dramatic, however, and simply chalk it up to poor socialization. Somewhere along the way, many people in our society have lost sight of and respect for personal boundaries. People confuse curiosity or inquisitiveness, i.e. a desire to know, with having a right to know. I can’t be sure if this is the natural outcome of our 24×7 media bombardment in which every sordid detail of the lives of public figures is laid bare on a routine basis, or if it comes from the increasingly close quarters in which we live and work each day. Or it may come from the mistaken belief that if only we could get to know one another better, we could get along, so hey, let’s celebrate differences and make them the foundation of interpersonal dialogue.
From such a perspective, then, I suppose it may be perfectly normal to focus on that which is in some ways foreign to us. By the same token, black Americans have been a fixture in this country for several hundreds of years and anyone who has not seen a person of such color by now really does need to get out more. That being said, it really might be best for anyone who is so completely lacking in basic social graces and any sense of propriety that he or she believes hair touching is a winning icebreaker to pursue a more secluded life. Interaction, at any level, requires manners of the kind we learn in Kindergarten.
In the French language, there are two forms of the word “you,” “Vous” and “Tu” with the latter being the personal, more intimate form of the word and the former being the more impersonal, less intimate form. It is considered a breach of etiquette to address a person one does not know well by the personal form. It is by invitation only that the form of address transitions from the impersonal to the other implying a deeper evolution of the relationship.
As evidence that it may, in fact, be possible to learn something from just about anyone, even the French, one can conceivably go on to generalize that if you are not on “Tu” terms with somebody, do not place your hands on any aspect of that person’s being.
As far as the exhibit goes, personally, I am agnostic, and limit my reaction to bemusement at photos of people rubbing their hands through the models’ hair. Others, however, were more or less generous.
On one side of the comments, one finds utter contempt for the exhibit with some likening it to a slave auction. I find that a little extreme. On the other side are folks who see it as a great opportunity to educate the masses. I think that position misses the mark in that black hair isn’t necessarily something about which the masses need to be educated. Our school systems are failing, kids can’t read and speak properly, and we have lost our footing on the global economic and technological stages. The focus of all educational efforts should be on subjects that actually matter in the grand scheme of things.
Now admittedly, we cannot always expend our energies on solving international crises, but when we are not so engaged, shouldn’t we channel our efforts towards improving the images each of us sees reflecting back at us through our own mirrors rather than obsessing over someone else’s hair?
At the end of the day, the texture and health care regimen of black women should not matter at all to anyone save black women. It is a poor reflection on the mental and social state of those whose social triggers do not fire in time to stop them from crossing the most basic lines of human conduct.
So the best advice I can offer when the compunction to inspect another person’s mane comes over those who are so inclined is this: unless you are a woman’s hairdresser, dermatologist or mother, just don’t do it. Don’t ask about it. Push all such thoughts from your mind. Exercise some personal control and discipline and keep your hands to yourself. The hair has nothing to do with you and you have nothing to do with it.
And no, you may not touch my hair.