Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Why You Can Touch My Hair

This hair right here - you can touch it.
There has been a lot of controversy over the website un'ruly's exhibition where women of color held up signs in New York City saying "you can touch my hair." While I am VERY uncomfortable with the thought of black women being on display in the middle of the city to satisfy the curiosities of white strangers, I am glad for the conversation that is going on right now about this. Over the years, I've been asked hundreds of times by friends and strangers if they can touch my hair and honestly, my answer is usually yes.

So yes, you can touch my hair. Not all of you. Not all the time. Here's where you can't touch my hair (true stories below):

1) In a business meeting
2) Without asking
3) If the word "weave" just came out of your mouth
4) If I'm going somewhere in a hurry or obviously preoccupied
5) If your hands are gross

Now, let me say this - this is my own personal decision. Everyone's body and hair is their own personal property and each individual gets to make this decision for themselves. I fully understand many of the reasons why so many women and men of color are offended by requests to touch their hair. I certainly DO NOT believe that it is anyone's duty to allow other people into their personal space simply to satisfy their curiosity. And I'm not at all under the naive impression that there isn't some exotification going on in some of the requests that I get. I know all of this, but I still say yes. I say yes for many reasons - my hair hair is beautiful, it's REALLY soft, I love to touch it, I want to share the joy - but mostly it's because I want you to be as familiar with my hair as I am with yours. 

I grew up with your hair, it was everywhere (well most of you, those white people with highly textured hair unfortunately get little screen time). It was on tv, in magazines - all the commercials. I know all the shampoos you have available to you. I know about blow-outs, curly perms, the upside-down hairspray/blowdry flip thingy. Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, I could do my friends' hair better than they could. If I were to adopt a white daughter, it would take a little practice, but I'd be pretty damn good with her hair. 

But you know what I knew nothing about? My own hair.
My brother and I in the way back when.
And my mom, who is white, didn't know anything about my hair either. My mom LOVED my hair. She really, truly did. But she didn't know what to do with it. She had never been exposed to textured hair. Once I outgrew wearing a puff every day (she would go to the fabric store to buy ribbon so that my puff always matched my outfit), she was at a loss. She got a hot comb and burnt the crap out of my ears and the back of my neck. She would scream, "pull against me!" as she ripped knots out of my hair and I cried like my actual head was being ripped off. By the time I was 7 my hair was constantly hot-combed. My mom was always looking for more options. When I was 11 she took me to a fancy salon and they gave me a perm that caused all my hair to break off and she buzzed it to my scalp. After my hair grew back, my mom turned to the most accessible way to make black hair more "manageable" - the relaxer.

My mom wanted to know how to care for my hair. And very rarely, she would work up the courage to ask a black friend. But she didn't want to let everyone know that she was just another white lady who didn't know how to do her black daughter's hair. She didn't want to offend anybody, she didn't want to seem ignorant. But in the '80's, when the internet was little more than a dial-up MTV chat room, there weren't a lot of resources out there for her. I have come to realize from my mom and many other white parents of children of color, how embarassing it is, and how nervous they are to ask for help. 

It wasn't until I was 31, in the midst of the current popularity of "natural hair" that I realized that I although I treated each 1/2 inch of new growth on my head like an advancing army of frizz that needed to be beaten back with caustic chemicals, I had absolutely no clue what my real hair felt like. I decided that it was time to find out and I cut off all my relaxer. As my 2 inches of hair slowly grew out I started to do research to learn more about my hair. I still live in a predominantly white area and while I do have black friends, I don't have a single black female friend with natural hair. I went on the internet and YouTube and saw awesome styles of varying levels of complication, but it was really hard for me to find the basics - how do I shampoo it? How do I comb it? Is my texture normal or damaged from heat? How fast will it grow? Will it be this curly when it's longer than two inches? I've had my natural hair for a little over a year and I am just now getting to where I am really comfortable with it and feel like I know how to take care of it. 

Which is even more important because my oldest son definitely has my hair and I want him to love it as much as I love mine now.

Now, most of the people who ask me if they can touch are not white mothers of black children (although, that does happen fairly often), but I want you to be familiar with my hair anyway. I want you to maybe notice that the strands are thinner than you thought they would be, I want you to see how different it may be from the hair of other people of color you know. I want you to ask about what products I use and how I take care of it. I want you to become familiar with it. I want the novelty to fade and I want you to begin to expect it to get as much spotlight in magazines and on tv as your hair. I want you to ask why Cosmo and Glamour will show a dozen how-to's for multiple textures of white hair but maybe one loosely curled brown woman and maybe one Asian woman. I want you to start asking why every salon doesn't have at least one person who knows how to handle textured hair. Because the world is getting more and more diverse and your niece, your grandson, your daughter - they might have hair like mine.


  1. Your hair is gorgeous!

    I also grew up with a white mother who didn't know what to do with my hair, other than try to wrangle it into barrettes. It was a joy to read your story.

    1. Thank you! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I think that when we talk about race and hair, we forget how multi-ethnic we are becoming as a society and many of us get lost in the middle.

  2. I read post over on Jezebel, and I wanted to say how beautiful your hair is. I suck at hair everything, but I'm trying to learn. And I like hearing/learning about all different types of hair. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I love this, thanks for writing it. It made me think of the first time I asked if I could touch a friend's hair because she was wearing it natural... We were both pretty drunk and we talked about me asking, and her letting me do it, and eventually came to the slightly teary-eyed conclusion (did i mention we were pretty drunk?) that we would both like to live in a world where everyone was allowed to touch everyone else's hair, but it wouldn't be a big deal because everyone's hair would just be normal.

    I never thought about the total lack of information available to you/your mum about taking care of your natural hair, but now I am imagining the pages of every women's magazine I've ever perused and realizing how fucked up that is. Anyway, I think you look beautiful and I really enjoyed reading this!

  4. This article is absolutely ridiculous. As a Black father, the idea that someone could approach my daughter and touch her hair, because she's an "exotic other," is infuriating. I have had the "is it alright to touch your/our hair" conversation many times, and to be completely honest, Bi-racial people are the only people that I have ever heard acquiesce to white people's need to touch hair. I have never encountered any Black person who believes that the "touching hair" phenomenon is acceptable... May God help the white person that asks to touch my daughter's hair in my presence. #FistUpHeadDown.

    1. You know what's interesting, after writing this, I've gotten messages from other black people (mostly, not mixed) who said that they have felt the same way as I do about their hair, but they have been afraid to say so, because they would be ridiculed by other members of the black community. They felt like they had to take sides. I respect your reasons for not wanting black people to touch your hair, but I think this discussion is good and healthy. Do not write mixed race people out of this conversation.

    2. Hi, I'd loved your article. You and your hair are absolutely beautiful. I would like to say to CP G that your a little on the defense, and maybe you have your reasons, but instead of being so negative about it, you could maybe see that its a compliment that your daughter has beautiful hair. People see beautiful soft hair, they want to put there hands in it for some reason, it doesn't necessarily mean they are thinking of her as a foreign object. If it still offends you, CALMLY explain to them why. I am white, not mixed, but I have extremely thick, curly "textured" hair. My friends lovingly refer to it as the poof. My mom was studying to be a hair stylist when I came along, and I sometimes wonder if not being able to tame this beast is why she gave up. This head has baffled many a hair dresser, including ones that specialize in ethnic hair. Over the years, I too have come to be at peace with it. I get asked by both white and black, men and women can they touch my hair all the time, and frankly I think its weird, like wanting to touch a pregnant womans belly...personal space anyone? But, I am not offended by it, I don't see why anyone would. I let them, because I have such a complex about my hair, that actually makes me feel good about it. I appreciate this article, and I think it was approached in a positive, uplifting way.

  5. My son has the same wonderfully difficult hair, at 15 he loves it and it becomes the identifier for him as he has grown it out (literally out, as there is no possibility of making it go anywhere other than out).

  6. Hi, stumbled across your blog somehow, love it! Great post too; as a #teamNatural girl myself, I totally understand the fascination some people have with my hair, and I don't mind if someone touches it - if they ask first!

  7. I love this piece so much. In the US, unlike most countries in the world, we have all sorts of people w real physical differences. I know that ppl are curious about my hair (Asian straight hair) Mine is a lot thicker and hard to manage than people would have thought. When I came to the US, it took me many years to find a hair dresser who "gets" my hair. Finally I found a hair dresser of Korean descent. Oh she gets it. I've been with her and following her around when she moved to different salons for over a decade now. My oldest son has the same texture of hair and yes, the "white" hair dressers don't really get his hair. Fortunately he cuts his hair short and therefore it's not a traumatic event every time.

    I really love/respect your understanding how hard your mom (and many other moms) tried to understand your hair and how guilty she must have felt. I am really enjoying your blog and posts and your world view in general. (Not a stalker. Please don't worry!) Thank you for writing and sharing your perspectives: they are a breath of fresh air. Wish you and your family a wonderful holiday season!

  8. Forgot to say: Your hair? Gorgeous. Gorgeous. I would hesitate to ask to touch it though because I would not want to mess with perfection. :-)

  9. It still shocks me that anyone would ask to touch a strangers hair!
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