There has been a lot of controversy over the website un'ruly's exhibition where women of color held up signs in New York City saying "you can touch my hair." While I am VERY uncomfortable with the thought of black women being on display in the middle of the city to satisfy the curiosities of white strangers, I am glad for the conversation that is going on right now about this. Over the years, I've been asked hundreds of times by friends and strangers if they can touch my hair and honestly, my answer is usually yes.
So yes, you can touch my hair. Not all of you. Not all the time. Here's where you can't touch my hair (true stories below):
- In a business meeting
- Without asking
- If the word "weave" just came out of your mouth
- If I'm going somewhere in a hurry or obviously preoccupied
- If your hands are gross
Now, let me say this - this is my own personal decision. Everyone's body and hair is their own personal property and each individual gets to make this decision for themselves. I fully understand many of the reasons why so many women and men of color are offended by requests to touch their hair. I certainly DO NOT believe that it is anyone's duty to allow other people into their personal space simply to satisfy their curiosity. And I'm not at all under the naive impression that there isn't some exotification going on in some of the requests that I get. I know all of this, but I still say yes. I say yes for many reasons - my hair hair is beautiful, it's REALLY soft, I love to touch it, I want to share the joy - but mostly it's because I want you to be as familiar with my hair as I am with yours.
I grew up with your hair, it was everywhere (well most of you, those white people with highly textured hair unfortunately get little screen time). It was on tv, in magazines - all the commercials. I know all the shampoos you have available to you. I know about blow-outs, curly perms, the upside-down hairspray/blowdry flip thingy. Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, I could do my friends' hair better than they could. If I were to adopt a white daughter, it would take a little practice, but I'd be pretty damn good with her hair.
But you know what I knew nothing about? My own hair.
And my mom, who is white, didn't know anything about my hair either. My mom LOVED my hair. She really, truly did. But she didn't know what to do with it. She had never been exposed to textured hair. Once I outgrew wearing a puff every day (she would go to the fabric store to buy ribbon so that my puff always matched my outfit), she was at a loss. She got a hot comb and burnt the crap out of my ears and the back of my neck. She would scream, "pull against me!" as she ripped knots out of my hair and I cried like my actual head was being ripped off. By the time I was 7 my hair was constantly hot-combed. My mom was always looking for more options. When I was 11 she took me to a fancy salon and they gave me a perm that caused all my hair to break off and she buzzed it to my scalp. After my hair grew back, my mom turned to the most accessible way to make black hair more "manageable" - the relaxer.
My mom wanted to know how to care for my hair. And very rarely, she would work up the courage to ask a black friend. But she didn't want to let everyone know that she was just another white lady who didn't know how to do her black daughter's hair. She didn't want to offend anybody, she didn't want to seem ignorant. But in the '80's, when the internet was little more than a dial-up MTV chat room, there weren't a lot of resources out there for her. I have come to realize from my mom and many other white parents of children of color, how embarassing it is, and how nervous they are to ask for help.
It wasn't until I was 31, in the midst of the current popularity of "natural hair" that I realized that I although I treated each 1/2 inch of new growth on my head like an advancing army of frizz that needed to be beaten back with caustic chemicals, I had absolutely no clue what my real hair felt like. I decided that it was time to find out and I cut off all my relaxer. As my 2 inches of hair slowly grew out I started to do research to learn more about my hair. I still live in a predominantly white area and while I do have black friends, I don't have a single black female friend with natural hair. I went on the internet and YouTube and saw awesome styles of varying levels of complication, but it was really hard for me to find the basics - how do I shampoo it? How do I comb it? Is my texture normal or damaged from heat? How fast will it grow? Will it be this curly when it's longer than two inches? I've had my natural hair for a little over a year and I am just now getting to where I am really comfortable with it and feel like I know how to take care of it.
Which is even more important because my oldest son definitely has my hair and I want him to love it as much as I love mine now.
Now, most of the people who ask me if they can touch are not white mothers of black children (although, that does happen fairly often), but I want you to be familiar with my hair anyway. I want you to maybe notice that the strands are thinner than you thought they would be, I want you to see how different it may be from the hair of other people of color you know. I want you to ask about what products I use and how I take care of it. I want you to become familiar with it. I want the novelty to fade and I want you to begin to expect it to get as much spotlight in magazines and on tv as your hair. I want you to ask why Cosmo and Glamour will show a dozen how-to's for multiple textures of white hair but maybe one loosely curled brown woman and maybe one Asian woman. I want you to start asking why every salon doesn't have at least one person who knows how to handle textured hair. Because the world is getting more and more diverse and your niece, your grandson, your daughter - they might have hair like mine.
Ijeoma Oluo is a single mom in the Seattle area who blogs about politics, crafts, parenting, books, and music.