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!"

Exactly!

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.

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