Wednesday, September 16, 2009

No, you can't touch my hair

[You know when I read this over at Liz's place, I had to ask for a crosspost. Last time hubby and I went to the friendly, neighborhood Steak 'n' Shake, some woman just reached out for a handful of my hair as I walked by. "Oooh, I like your hair!" Luckily for me, but especially her, I was too quick for her. When has it ever been okay to feel up a stranger's hair--even if you ask first (which this grown-ass woman did not)? For the last time, people, black women don't live in petting zoos. Hands off the curls!]

written by Liz; crossposted from Los Angelista's Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness

Earlier this afternoon I was at Los Angeles' Griffith Park public pool with my kids. We were having a pretty good time. And that's despite the fact that some random old man hobbled by me and said, "Nice tits."

I was pretty shocked by his comment but he was gone before I could respond. To make things even stranger, he proceeded to walk over to an overweight pre-teen boy and say the same thing to him!

It was definitely a crazy moment, but it was a gorgeous afternoon so I contented myself with watching my sons splashing in the water and reading "O" magazine.

Unfortunately, the madness wasn't over. A few minutes later, a woman, a white woman, approached me, her hand extended toward my head. "Ooh your hair is sooo pretty. Can I touch it?"

I immediately leaned away out of her reach and said, "No."

Her response? A shocked and outraged, "Are you serious? I can't touch your hair?"

"No, you can't," I replied. I guess she's never seen my #donotpetmyafro hashtag on Twitter.

Indeed, she had the nerve to look confused and offended as she asked, "Why not?"

Really, lady? You want me to explain to you why I don't want you to touch my hair? Let's see...

Because you're a STRANGER.

Because I'm not an animal in the zoo.

Because this is my body and I don't have to let anybody touch any part of it, EVER, if I don't want to.

Because my black ancestors may have been your ancestors property, and had to smile while they got touched in ways they didn't want to, but I am not YOUR property and never will be so you'd best move your hand away from me.

I was so overwhelmed by anger that my mouth opened and no sound came out. I think my eyes must've had shown what I was feeling because she made this weird face, turned on her heel and huffily walked back over to her towel.

Unfortunately her towel was maybe 10 feet away from mine. Just great.

The pool was closing in 20 minutes so I yelled a five minute warning to my kids and got busy packing up our stuff. That's when I overheard the woman talking smack about me to her child.

"I'm a nice person and I try so hard to be nice to THEM, but I'm tired of trying to be nice to bitchy black women."

My kids hopped out of the water and began drying off, all while she threw me dagger looks and ranted to her child. "All I wanted to do was touch her hair. What's the big deal about that? She should be happy I asked to touch her hair."

My eight year-old caught on pretty quickly, "Is she talking about YOU, mommy?"

It made me so angry that my sons were being exposed to the situation. I wanted to hit something. I wanted to drag the woman to the side of the pool, hold her head under water and scream, "*&#*%^ TOUCH THIS!"

Instead, with as much dignity as I could, I hustled us out the door, tears of pure rage pricking my eyes.

I couldn't go over to her and explain why her request was not OK. Why should I have to explain, especially when I feel like nothing I would've said would've made it right? The only thing that would've made it all better is if I'd said, "I'm sorry you're upset. Go ahead and touch my hair."

She wanted to objectify me and have me go along with her request, a request that smacked of racial superiority and privilege. But when I didn't like it, I became the problem.

I know there are those who'll think this woman's behavior has nothing to do with racism and subconscious privilege, and is instead a matter of someone being rude and unable to respect personal boundaries.

Being rude and being racist are not mutually exclusive things. In this situation I'd say that this woman's attitude -- a black woman, with all her afro-y exoticness must let me touch her hair because I'm curious and I did ask-- is both rude AND racist.

In addition, her subsequent comments gave voice to the prevalent racist American stereotype that black women are bitches. But, like so many, this woman failed to recognize what role her own attitude may have in any negative interactions she may be having with black women.

With her comment that I should've been happy she said my hair was pretty, I found myself feeling like I could've been the slave that the missus had deigned to notice. "Isn't our colored woman's hair cute?"

I know there are those who think black women should let folks from other backgrounds touch their hair. How else will we learn about each other, right?

In that line of thinking, I was just being mean to someone who was merely trying to be open minded.

Here's the thing: I don't really like people touching my hair, period. I don't care who you are.

I don't ask to touch other people's hair, either. But if we have a relationship where we're really good friends and a piece of lint has blown into my hair and you're offering to get it out for me, OK, you can touch my hair.

Otherwise, let me say unequivocally, please don't try to use my hair as some sort of cultural learning experience. And don't expect me to be all, "Oh thank you, missus! You sho is thoughtful to notice ole nappy me!"

You want to know what a black woman's natural hair feels like? Get your own black female friends and ask them, not me. That is, if you can stop thinking we're bitches long enough for that to happen.

On the car ride home my sons rapid-fired question at me. They wanted to know what had gone down. As I explained to them what had occurred they were shocked and angered. "How dare she try to touch your hair! You're not her dog!"


Hours later, my eldest son keeps hugging me and saying, "I'm so sorry that happened to you, mommy. She had no right to treat you like that."

No, she had no right. But sadly, I'm sure this will not be the last time I have to say, no, you can't touch my hair.


BabylonSista said...

I'm natural, too--and, unfortunately, I've lived your blog entry several times. I have a t-shirt that says "No, you cannot touch my hair." The company who made it is out of business, but it's fabulous.

A. Marie said...

oh my goodness... I'm so sorry this happened to you. Sadly, this isn't an isolated or uncommon thing.

She clearly did not know to recognize your boundaries. Her undeserved privilege showed when she EXPECTED to be allowed to touch YOUR hair. As if your hair was public property, or like your son said... a dog's.

Her anger was just the anger of someone possessing undeserved privilege. It was entirely unjustified and inappropriate. (esp. when she talked smack to her son! Just passing on the prejudices, eh?)

As a Black woman with natural hair, I have faced similar situations, but I've been fortunate enough to avoid strangers putting their hands in my hair unsolicited. At most, I've learned a vicious *Side eye."

Black British Girl said...

First off what a bitch second of all who the hell does she think she is and you are?! This happen to black women with natural or relaxed or texturized hair.

It happend to me on the bus ride home a white woman pulled my hair and i mean yanked it her excuse "I wanted to know if your hair was fake"

You don't know me like that

so I decided to return the favour and pull her hair in return removing a glued in blonde track then she started yelling at me and at everyone it the bus but a old white woman who happens to be my neighbour said that she shouldn't have touched my hair in the first place

seriously why do people think they have the right to touch you I don't even like sitting next to people i don't know on the bus i hate when my personal space is invaded

bittersweet said...

Tami- Thanks for crossposting.

Liz- I am BOILING after reading this! Makes me wanna holler and throw up both my hands! Makes me wanna stop this rollercoaster. The dehumanization is too, too much.

Wildflower said...

I was outraged when my daughter kept coming home and complaining about folks petting her hair...not about the other kids, but the TEACHERS!

Kids are in a position of powerlessness and she felt she had to let the teachers pet her. I told her how to respectfully respond, but I was frustrated because that was all I felt I could do.

If I went to complain to the principal, I knew I'd be an uppity, bitchy, black woman, which was fine, but it would boomerang back on my child. Bringing up anything about race with them was had happened before.

Damn white folk.

She's going to a school with a significant black presence now, and the teacher hair petting thing doesn't happen anymore, thank goodness.

Joyful Mom said...

Thanks for posting this. It's an issue I'm learning deal with on behalf of my daughters. And one they have to cope with on their own too (they're not yet five). This prompted me to write about it.

Tracy said...

I would have popped her.....

Broadsnark said...

I can't believe you didn't lose it. I don't think I could have stopped myself.

kristine said...

i am very sorry this happened to you especially with your children around while you were just trying to relax.

this woman is a crazy racist.

there are many different types of hair that any one of us might want to touch, soft silky long hair, tight curly ringlets, wavy tousled curls, whatever - lots. but never once have i seen white people touch other grown white people's hair.

i am white and my son is african american. when he was four he wanted his head shaved. i didn't think about it,he asked and asked, he has the most beautiful brown ringlets- i waited till spring and then shaved his head, i was sad, because i missed the curls but it's his hair so if he wants it shorn fine. then the next day he came home from pre-k. 'how was school?' i asked. 'great!' he said 'no one touched me!'

i had not know till that moment that everyday the teachers and students in his almost all white school were touching his hair.

no he has a mohawk and it's the same thing. for the moment he likes the attention but this post has made me realize i need to let him know that it really is not ok for strangers to reach out and touch your hair. he's almost seven.

thank you for your post.

Los Angelista said...

Thanks, Tami, for cross-posting my experience. It's SO not right that so many women and children of African descent are experiencing similar things. It needs to change.

Guillermo said...

I'm speechless. Can't believe that actually happened.

Authortee said...

How about this one, Tami - "does your hair hurt?" I've heard that one before. I think it's a combination of racism and the old "rub a coon's head for luck."

Vee (Scratch) said...

Wow, I heard about these incidents before but I didn't think random strangers would still do something odd like this.

^Black British Girl, hopefully that woman learned a lesson.

Lainad said...

Thanks for cross-posting this, Tami. I have to admit, I laughed out loud when I read this. It seems like everyday there is a story where I seriously wonder about the intelligence of the average human being, the deep-seated sense of privledge that white people have. I don't know why it continues to shock me, this shit has been happening all my life.

A random story - my former best friend married a white guy and their first child, a boy had, umm, 'black' hair and my friend just let it grow into a nice little 'fro. Never really thought much of it until I was chatting with his father who said that he was taking the kid in to get his hair cut, saying that it was too 'nappy-looking.'

At first, I thought that he meant that the boy's hair wasn't being combed, but was a bit puzzled because my friend took great care to make sure he always looked good, and the soft curls made it more managable to groom than...let's say my tightly-coiled hair.

After the father said a couple of more things, I started to get angry, like he was almost ashamed of his child's hair texture. I wanted to say, 'you had sex with a black woman, produced a child and you are wondering why your child's hair looks like that? What the hell did you expect?'

That incident and For other reasons, mostly centered on his attitude towards black women as sexual servants and housekeepers, we are no longer friends.

Esa Traviesa said...

OMG i can't believe that woman actually had the nerve to say that you should be happy she wanted to touch it! Really? Seriously??? Thats insane to know that she actually got upset when you didn't let her pet you like some puppy. Undeserving sense of superiority on her part.

Sabrina Messenger said...

That gal who said someone should be "happy" they asked to touch her hair? She needs to get over herself big time. I would've touched her hair right PULLING it right from its roots!!!

Razzberry Jam said...

I'm pretty late to the conversation, but I too get the hair thing.

I'm white and Native American, my skin color is very pale, but my hair is my glory. Braided it swings just past my round butt. And people are forever touching it.

I'm not a person that likes to be touched by strangers, it took me literally years to get to where I would willingly hug even a friend. Touch is extremely intimate to me, if you aren't my family or my lover, don't freaking touch me!

Yet, yet, yet, my hair is almost an invitation for people to handle me. Old ladies touch it in the store, to see if it's real. Men, omg, let's not talk about men and their fascination with long hair (and trust me, I'm 100% hetro), and they think because they're men and I'm a woman, they have the right to grab at me.

And yes, they do get mad if I say "No". The sense of privilege that some people have is just astounding...

People are just plain rude.

Haitian-American Family of Three said...

Ahh! At the Dr. office today the nurse kept touching my three year old's braids and I wanted to shout at her-"don't touch her hair!" I get a lot of crazy comments from all sorts of people about my kids hair, which I don't mind so very much, but please people keep your hands OFF!

Shannon Brazil said...

I just came from a braiding party with my daughter and googled the t-shirt everyone was talking about ("Don't Touch My Hair"). Lucky for me, this post came up. I've only recently learned that hair can be the impetus for racism. It makes me think...

The first time my in-laws touched our daughter's hair they marveled, "Ooooh, it's so soft." I suddenly realized they'd only ever touched white hair and they didn't have any black friends. Even if they did, they'd most certainly would have referred to them as Black first, Friend second. It made me very sad.

(This is not the same thing, but I'm going to say it anyway and hopefully my point will somehow come across). When I was pregnant everyone told me strangers would touch my belly. I was horrified. I spent months walking around on edge, giving off a hard, cold stare that said, "Stay the f*ck back." Nobody touched me. But it was exhausting. And it was without a shred of the racist under(and over)tones of our bloody U.S. history. I simply cannot fathom this woman's racist entitlement. I hate that there are too many people like her out there.

As a white woman with a biracial daughter, black nieces, and African American relatives, and friends, I'm doing all I can to make a difference, but my efforts pale in comparison with Experience. I realize the experience is something I'll never fully understand - not in the way my daughter will.

Thanks for your post. Better late than never.

Orodemniades said...

Zomfg I had no idea the hair thing was awide spread thing! Seriously, this post makes me feel a lot better about being creeped the fuck out and downright angry when random strangers, invariably customers I'm serving, have reached out and grabbed my fucking hair. Yeah, I'm a black chick with a braid - surely that's not that exciting or novel, right? RIGHT??? I mean, wtff is that all about? Funnily enough, no one wanted to touch it when I had a ' that's even weirder when I think about it.

Meghan said...

I am a young white woman who is trying to counteract a bigoted upbringing. If I imply something inappropriate please tell me, but I am sincerely trying to learn and change. (I found your post through

I would never touch a stranger, or even ask to; but is it ok to compliment? Or coming from a white woman does is that insulting? I have long straight hair that doesn't curl, and I've always admired those with naturally curly or just beautiful hair. I guess I never thought that my compliment could be construed differently, until your post pointed out that some people view it as an invitation to touch - or if they compliment your hair they expect an invitation.

Tami said...


Thanks for stopping by!

Compliments are not insulting. I think the key is to treat women of color as you would any other woman. Think of how you would want to be treated.

Saying "Hey, I love your hair!" is great. Grabbing...pulling... asking "Do you wash it?...acting like you've just seen a unicorn is off-putting and othering at best.

Does that make sense? I often hear people talk as if black women have some unique feelings about their natural hair being touched. I don't think that's the case. I don't think ANYONE wants to be treated like the resident of a human zoo. I think the best takeaway is "treat others as you would have them treat you."

Anonymous said...

Ok ladies, I guess I'm the rude person to which this blog is dedicated. I am a black woman who wears dreads and happened upon a white stranger in the library. He engaged me in conversation and the topic quickly turned to hair. He has a beautiful head of thick, curly, naturally multi-colored hair that came together in a ponytail. I asked HIM for permission to touch it. He excitedly obliged and, after a few strokes of his ponytail, he removed the holder to let it all hang loose. At that point, I started to feel uncomfortable and quickly exited the scene.

Yeah, I was wrong for being so enchanted by a stranger's hair that I couldn't resist touching it. But if I'm going to be completely honest here, that whole experience was HOT!

Mac said...

I'm an Indian in India (so not a minority, really) but I have unusually curly hair, which I wear short (VERY unusual for Indian women). The level of vitriol that attracts from completely random people - accusations of everything from tomboyishness to "being unnatural" and being told I can't get a man...all because my hair isn't down to my shoulders. And yes, they get grabby when they're not condemning me to hell for it.

So yeah, if just that makes me uncomfortable as hell, I can only imagine the level of invasion, objectification and just plain creepiness that such racially charged comments must cause to you. I love hair - have a fetish for it, in fact - but I wouldn't dream of touching another person's hair without explicit permission and at least a solid acquaintance. Just a lot of babble to say - I get your point, and respect your right to stand up for this. And thanks for bringing it to my attention - I really did think of the hair obsession as a religious, rather than racist, problem.


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