Can I Touch Your Hair? Black Women and The Petting Zoo


Can I Touch Your Hair? Black Women and The Petting Zoo

by Womanist Musing

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.


'Can I touch it?' The fascination with natural, African-American hair

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.

Full article...

A few people have asked to touch my hair over the years. But I live in a country with people from predominantly African and East Indian diasporas, where hair types are so variable that interest and curiosity about hair texture and management abound. I do not have the experience of being a black girl in a white community as is the case of the author of the first post. Undoubtedly some instances like being in a game and someone touching your hair while they celebrate cannot be tolerated, as it is indeed a violation of one's personal space. But what do you think, particularly persons who may be from predominantly white communities, if someone politely asks questions regarding your hair, or they ask to touch your hair would you consent? Can it always be an attack, or can it be a valid curiosity? Indeed, if you choose to extend such an innocent/polite request to other body parts, it then becomes an entirely different discussion.

I have had a few experiences of whites and chinese people wanting to touch my hair and if anything its been a good base for discussion, exposure, understanding etc. I recalled for instance in discussion with a Chinese from China classmate that people straighten their hair a lot in the Caribbean, described the process and what I thought it meant (rejection of an aspect of one's identity). She asked how common it was in my 'hometown' or 'region' and I had a good visual example to relay around the time. There were two female netball teams playing on some world championship last year on tv. One team from the Dominican Republic, and all seven team members who were of all shades of black had straightened hair, save one girl - the darkest- who had weave to get just 'the right' length as 'the others'. Even the substitutes had straightened hair. All this discussion sprang from hair texture. My classmate thereafter even showed me the Cuban team and commented on the girls and their hair styles as some had straightened hair.

Interestingly, my Chinese classmate also had hair issues. Apparently many chinese can have really coarse thick (very large follicles which indeed were larger than anyone I'd seen of Caribbean textures) hair and this is considered not so attractive because of all the aesthetic nitty gritties that are very relevant to her in her society and chalk up a sense of insecurity with respect to phsyical appearance.

I also found this comment made by the first author interesting...

Today I am a grown woman with dreadlocks that reach to the middle of my back.

I breezed through another article the blogger/writer did and she had this same comment about her 'hair reaching the middle of her back'. What do you think about her making reference to/holding onto the length of her hair after she said in the first post above 'Part of female beauty has always included long flowing locks'?

I have the view that sometimes people who wear ras more than trying to defy a white beauty system, use it to get closer to such an image, which is most powerfully demonstrated when people with ras dye their hair blonde. Comments?


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