Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Can I touch your hair? Black women and the petting zoo

Written by Renee, crossposted from Womanist Musings

Hair does not mean the same thing to white women as it does to black women. Hair for us is a physical indicator of the ways in which we are different. It is no accident that the first black millionaire, Madame CJ Walker sold hair care products. Part of female beauty has always included long flowing locks, and for black women who have gravity defying hair, that refuses to be tamed, this can be extremely problematic. To mess with our hair, is to mess with your safety; much of who we are is invested in our beautiful audacious locks.

Many of my childhood memories involve sitting at my mothers feet as she braided my hair for the week. Every Saturday night I would unbraid my hair, and then my mother would wash it and braid it. I would then put on my head tie, and go to bed thinking of how pretty I would look in church the next day. This is a ritual that most black women can relate to.

As a black girl growing in a mostly Greek and Italian neighbourhood, my hair often became the subject of conversation. I was a curiosity. People would touch it, and ask questions about its care like my hair was some kind of pet dog. That they were being racist, or treating me like some kind of exotic creature, never once occurred to them.

Today I am a grown woman with dreadlocks that reach to the middle of my back. I love them, and they are an expression of my racial pride. What many white people often fail to realize is that wearing our hair natural is a political choice on the part of black women. In a culture that constantly teaches that anything black, or associated with blackness is negative, to publicly wear your hair natural is to embrace blackness as a positive. More often than not, when the media chooses to portray black women as angry or revolutionary, our hair is altered to its natural state even if the woman in question has straightened hair. The most recent example of this, can be found on the heinous cover of the New Yorker, where Michelle was depicted with an Afro and a rifle.

Natural hair equals revolutionary because it says I do not covet whiteness. It says I have decolonized my mind and no longer seek to embrace the qualities of my oppressor. It flies in the face of beauty traditions that seek to create black women as unfeminine and thereby undesirable. My natural hair is one of the truest expressions of the ways in which I love myself because I have made the conscious choice to say that I am beautiful, without artifice or device. It further states that I will not be judged by the yardstick of white womanhood. My beauty is a gift from my foremothers who knew on a more instinctual level than we know today, that 'woman' is as beautiful as she believes herself to be.

Today I have the confidence to loudly proclaim no you may not touch my hair. I am not an animal at a petting zoo. I will not be your path to the exotic. Even worse than the ones that ask, are those that assume that they have right to touch me without permission. I believe that part of this urge stems from the fact that black women like so many other WOC, have historically been denied even the smallest forms of bodily autonomy. While white women were covered in multiple layers; corsets, floor length dresses etc, no honour was given to our desire for modesty. The black female slave at anytime could be forced to disrobe for the pleasure of her owners.

Today white people still feel that they have the right to our bodies. It can be a small act like touching our hair without permission, to a heinous act as serious as sexual assault. In each case it is an assault, and an affront to our bodily integrity. My blackness and your curiosity does not give you the right to touch me. I don't care if you smile while you do it, or whistle Dixie out of your ass. My body deserves just as must respect as anyone else. In answer to your question both verbalized and assumed, NO YOU MAY NOT TOUCH MY HAIR.

13 comments:

Beautifully.Conjured.Up said...

Great Post! I found your blog during a search for some information (I don't know how that happened). Anways, I too am natural, and I know exactly how you feel. On the contrary, I have received more negativity from Blacks (specifically Black women) than from anyone else. Although I can care less either way, it still bothers me that in 2008 we still feel the need to believe in the ideology that straight hair is the only and best hair. We will go to the lengths of using harsh chemicals and/or spending 100s or 1000s on some fake hair.

JenX67 said...

I agree - it is sexual assault.

This is fantastic. I really think you should publish this somewhere other than thig blog. Have you already? Excellent, really.

It made me sick to my stomach though - the whole metaphorical implications of the petting zoo. I'm really sorry you ever had to endure this. It's right up there with every white chick who has ever said, "Black babies are so cute..." I can't pinpoint it, but something about that statement has always bugged me.

Lady C said...

beautifully.conjured.up, I have encountered the same problem with other Black women. "Your hair would look so nice if you just put a little straightener in it."

Tami, I feel the same way you do. Do not touch my hair. I've been wearing it natural for over 25 years.

My sister wore a very short afro in 1968, because it was easy to manage. I remember my sister telling a friend of hers that a teacher (my sister taught school) asked her if she could touch her hair. My sister said, "Go ahead." She said the lady said with great astonishment, "I can't believe how soft your hair is." To which my sister asked, "Why? Did you think it was steel wool?"

Anonymous said...

I have always had curly hair, and people would pet and pull at it. In Asia, people would come up all the time and touch my hair.

I don't straighten my hair, I don't grow it long, I don't put any chemicals or dyes in it. Even make-up is horrifying to me.

Great post, and yes, I loved the afros of the 60s, and that statement that our hair won't be colonized.

Renee said...

Thanks everyone...this post expressed a lot of the frustrations that I daily go through as a black woman. Our bodies have yet to be treated with the universal respect that they deserve.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Thank you for saying what I feel. I once wore my hair in long braids and a woman at the gym grabbed one ... I guess for a closer look ... no "hello" ... no "may I?" I was shocked.

I'd also like to add ... not only can you not touch it, if we're not BFF, it's rude to ask me if my hair is real. My beauty secrets are just that. If you don't ask me what's fake on me, I won't ask you what's fake on you. Deal?

Jill said...

Admittedly clueless white woman here - curious about something with white women re: age and hair: there is an old expectation that when a white woman turns 40, she no longer should be wearing her hair long - I've ignored that for 6 years. Is there anything age related like that within the black community?

For the record, I confess to being fascinated and curious and frankly in admiration of the art of the hair on many African American women. I pray that that's not looked down upon but I am open to being set straight - this is to say/ask, black women can admire other black women's hair, yes? But is it okay for me too? Or not really? (that is ok - I am just wanting to understand the boundary here).

I love posts that take pride the way this one does. Tami, as always, thank you.

Tami said...

Jill,

My two cents: I think the age/length thing applies, but is changing for all women. Forty and 50 are seen as a lot more youthful than when, say, my grandmother was those ages. 40 is the new 30. Thanks, Boomers!

Re: your other question. I like to have my hair admired as much as the next woman. For me, there is a line, though, between saying "Hey, your hair looks great. How'd you do that?" and a stranger staring at my head with curiosity putting their hands on me without permission. I don't necessarily think the line with black women is any different than with women of other races. It's just that a lot of people feel free to ignore the line when it comes to us.

Siditty said...

Wow,

I did a post a day or two ago about my hair not being a political statement. I am a natural, relaxer free for 9 years, and I get the can I touch your hair question often. That or people are confused as to why I don't have an actual "afro" as all black folks have the same exact hair, and it always ends up being an afro.

I do get frustrated of the assumptions people make because I am natural. It throws them completely off.

--------

I found your blog during a search for some information (I don't know how that happened). Anways, I too am natural, and I know exactly how you feel. On the contrary, I have received more negativity from Blacks (specifically Black women) than from anyone else. Although I can care less either way, it still bothers me that in 2008 we still feel the need to believe in the ideology that straight hair is the only and best hair.

I found this to be true in my experiences as well. Black women reacted negatively when I stopped relaxing. My mother just came to accept my hair in the last year or so.

------

I remember my sister telling a friend of hers that a teacher (my sister taught school) asked her if she could touch her hair. My sister said, "Go ahead." She said the lady said with great astonishment, "I can't believe how soft your hair is." To which my sister asked, "Why? Did you think it was steel wool?"

I get that comment very often, I do think that some people think black hair is hard or feels like steel wool.

That or they think black hair can't grow long. I have had people, of all races do a "track check" in my head to see if my hair is real or fake.

blackgirlinmaine said...

Bravo. I am a dreadlocked sista who lives in Maine of all places and I am constantly dealing with folks that want to touch my locs. Noooo, you may not touch my hair and enter my personal space. Anyway I recently blogged about this, but you did this far more eloquently than I did.

My dreads represent many things to me, but growing them has indeed allowed me to accept my womanhood as a Black woman.

Jennifer K said...

The sad thing is, no matter what race a woman is, she is seen as public property that anyone can make a boneheaded comment. People have gotten on my case for being short (sorry, can't do anything about it). I've been accused of wearing colored contacts because I have very light blue eyes. And I've often been told, "You're so pale. Why don't you get a tan?" And how many of us have been walking down the street, minding our own business, and told by a complete stranger, "Why don't you smile?" It's maddening.

Tami, I think your hair is lovely, and I'm sorry people treat you with such disregard. It's disgraceful.

Evan Carden said...

@Jenx67: "I agree - it is sexual assault." No, actually it isn't. What it is, is simple battery, which is a misdemeanor and is, I believe, actionable.

In other words, anyone who intentionally touches you without your permission in a manner you find insulting or harmful is committing a crime.

Don't you learn the nicest things growing up with a lawyer always around?

Now, on a more personal note, I've read this sort of story in a couple of places and every time I have the same reaction: People are seriously creepy.

And finally, because I can't stop being a nitpicker, Jennifer K: There's a serious difference between making a comment and physically touching someone. Among other things, one's a crime and one isn't (unless it constitutes harrassment of some kind).

brie said...

Found your blog through someone else's. v. interesting post! i'm going natural now and have always hated the idea that having natural hair is seen as some sort of a major step. that's why it's called 'natural', because it's doing anything else but that that should be seen as a major step. blogged on this recently>> http://justyougirl.blogspot.com/. My decision to go natural has been viewed by my black friends as weird and somehow 'unnatural'. i've been asked how i'll 'manage' and what i'll do when i'm going out. my white friends think it's about time.

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