Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Final notes on hair touching

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You know I'm always game to talk about my hair, so when a friend hooked me up with Lisa Respers France, who was writing a story about black natural hair for CNN, I was eager to participate. It's not often that mainstream sources report on black women's beauty experiences or our challenges living within a society with Eurocentric beauty standards. The resulting post on CNN.com, about that peculiar thing that every natural head I know talks about--strangers touching their hair--is here:
(CNN) -- Tamara Winfrey Harris tells a story of being in a chain restaurant with her husband when their names were called for a table.
Just as the couple rose to go, a middle-aged white woman standing nearby reached out swiftly to touch Winfrey Harris's hair which at the time was styled in natural twists.
"She missed by mere seconds, she was actually going to grab my hair as I walked past her," recalled Winfrey Harris who runs the blog What Tami Said. "I turned around and she said, 'Oh, your hair is neat.' It just floored me because who does that, just reaches out and touches strangers?"
It's a common tale shared by women of color whose natural hair can attract stares, curiosity, comments and the occasional stranger who desires to reach out and touch.
The reaction to such fondling can range from amusement to outrage over the invasion of personal space.
Tamara Winfrey Harris says she had a total stranger reach for her hair in a restaurant.
The discussion surrounding it is often rooted in race relations. Read more...
Hee! I was tickled pink to see my name in the lead. I was even more thrilled to see that I was featured alongside really smart ladies like Renee of Womanist Musings, Liz of Los Angelista and Issa Rae of the phenomenal The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl. I wasn't so thrilled, though, with the level of hateful email and racist vitriol the article sparked for the women included. All I can say is that there are some ugly people with really ugly thoughts out there. And I have finally learned my lesson about venturing into the comments on any mainstream news site, except The Atlantic, where the discourse always seems rigorous, but thoughtful (at least at Ta-Nehisi Coates' place).

There are a few points that I'd like to clarify regarding my feelings on unwanted hair touching.


Black women don't have a "thing" about people touching their hair (Despite what Chris Rock told you in Good Hair). Indeed, I couldn't care less if a friend or family member touches my tresses. I actually like it. Many black women feel the same way and many disagree, because like every other group of women, we are not a monolith.

This is not a cultural issue. This is an issue of respect for boundaries. ALL people generally want others to observe personal space and to recognize their ownership of their own bodies. You probably don't want that weird dude from the dog park to come over and start rubbing your back. Black women are no different. I'm not keen on STRANGERS petting or pulling my hair.

It's not always about race, but sometimes it is. Every incident has context. It's not about race every time a black woman gets her hair touched., but it often is. I explained it like this to a thoughtful dad of four adopted black children, who emailed me in response to the CNN article. He shared an experience that made him challenge whether the hair touching he saw his children experience was primarily about race. Here is my response:
One thing I think sets your children's experience apart from those of us who were interviewed for the CNN piece, is that they are children. Right or wrong, adults feel more emboldened to touch children because kids are not viewed as equals. Know what I mean? Adults pinch babies' cheeks, muss little boys' hair...It's no better to invade a child's personal space, but it is deemed acceptable in our society. Adults don't often pinch the cheeks and muss the hair of other adults. We work to preserve boundaries of personal space and acknowledge other adults' ownership of their own bodies. 
What I think, from my experience, is that we are more likely to ignore these things (personal space, ownership of body) when we are dealing with a person from a marginalized group or, rather, a group that doesn't have (perceived) equal power. So, women receive more unwanted touching than men (Ask a pregnant lady!). And black women--we have the hair thing. (I wonder if/how your sons' experiences will change as they age into young, black men.) I've heard people with disabilities talk about people pushing and pulling at them. (For instance, grabbing a wheelchair that serves as somebody's "legs" and moving the person about without permission.)
I think it's about power and privilege. And that doesn't mean that everyone who rubs a pregnant woman's belly or touches a black woman is a villain. The woman who made a grab for me, and the couple who touched and snapped a PHOTOGRAPH of  my hair at the State Fair seemed like nice people, but they were nice people who were, at best, being rude, and, at worst, othering me because they thought something on my person was exotic and different.

A whole lot of privileges and biases exist in our society. We grow up in them and we absorb them, despite our best intentions. It is not beyond the bounds of belief that there is some race-related reason why every black woman with natural hair I know is frequently pawed by strangers.

Just cause it's pretty...I shared this analogy with a friend on Facebook and I thought it was a good one. Some people on the CNN thread challenged that maybe the hair touchers simply find black, natural hair attractive. I hope they do! But you aren't allowed to touch everything pretty you see.

It would never be acceptable for a man to grab a woman's rear, or any other part, because, well, he thinks it's "pretty." We would call that sexist behavior. We would discuss how the man did not recognize the woman's boundaries. We would say he was displaying male privilege. And we would be astonished if anyone argued that this man's behavior had nothing to do with gender bias or sexism--that he was just being rude, but this had nothing to do with his feelings about women. We (I hope) would not tell the woman, as one commenter said on CNN a bajillion times, that she should take being grabbed as a compliment and learn to accept "love."

I'm just going to leave you with that.

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