I’m totally used to the curious looks. I don’t even mind the longing stares. I’m even willing to stop what I’m doing and answer a few well-meaning questions about it. But in general, I draw the line at touching. Because as fluffy and fun and fabulous as my hair might appear to be (and it is all of those things), I’m not a poodle. I don’t enjoy being petted. And it happens more often than you might think.
My hair was chemically straightened for 20 years of my life. During that time, I don’t remember anyone besides members of my family or my hairdresser expressing even a passing interest in touching my hair. Nine years ago, I decided to shun hair-straightening chemicals and go natural, and everything changed for me. My once thin and limp hair grew thick and strong, and kinky little coils began to appear where none had been before. My self-confidence wavered at first, but then grew stronger than I ever dreamed it would be. I learned how to work with my hair’s new texture and over time I grew to adore it. I started a blog to celebrate my love for natural hair and it became my full-time job.
And people’s reaction to my hair changed, too. The staring started. Sometimes people would stop me to ask me questions like, “How did you get your hair like that,” “Is that your real hair,” “Do you use a comb or a brush,” or “Do you wash your hair?”. (The answers: “It just grows this way,” “Yes,” “I use a comb, but brushes make my fro frizzy,” and “Duh.”)
I’m OK with being a natural hair ambassador. There have been many times where a random encounter at Target or the drugstore has led to a teachable moment and a discussion about hair products and detangling techniques. There is curiosity about natural afro-textured hair, and I’ve been approached by people of all races about mine. Whether it’s a black woman who rocks a relaxer and wants to know how to transition to natural hair, or a white guy who’s raising an adopted child and wants advice on caring for their tresses – I have absolutely no problems answering hair questions and yes, if you ask nicely under those circumstances, you can touch my hair for a brief time. It’s the unsolicited hair touching I’m not cool with.
Most unsolicited hair touching comes from people I don’t expect to be PC at all -- elderly women have no compunction about ruffling my hair as they make their way past me on the bus. Kids will stretch out their hands to grab it, like they think my hair’s made out of cotton candy or something. And every so often, a stranger will straight up try to pet me.
I’m certainly not the only natural haired person who has had this happen. Recently CNN wrote an article about the phenomenon of touching natural black hair and quoted two friends of mine -- Tami of What Tami Said and Liz of LosAngelista about their experiences and feelings. Don’t read too many of the comments on that post if you plan on having a nice day.
The comments reveal volumes about how much deeper these issues can go, and how far we are from a truly post-racial America. For expressing their feelings about being touched by strangers against their will, these women got the brunt of the backlash. (Tami responded on her blog and Liz wrote a response piece, and then published a very thoughtful comment from a white woman who recently touched a black woman’s hair herself.)
After reading the nasty assumptions and vitriol that Tami and Liz got for being quoted by CNN, I did an informal survey amongst my friends with natural hair. I was curious to see how many people I knew saw hair touching as an issue based in ethnic difference and assumptions of privilege, versus how many just saw it as innocent curiosity like the author of this Essence article did. After all, black women with natural hair don’t own the copyright on unwanted and unsolicited touching. Ask any visibly pregnant woman about that.
Quite a few of my friends saw unsolicited touching as a combination of curiosity and privilege, and I agree. Even if the impetus to touch someone else comes from a place of admiration, actually thinking you can do it without asking first is all about a skewed sense of privilege. And that ain’t cool, whether we’re talking about a pregnant belly, or naturally kinky hair.
In my experiences with being petted I’ve come to realize that my reaction can totally determine how things go, so I generally try to be lighthearted and friendly, laugh it off, possibly answer a hair-related question and move on. But because I believe in boundaries and respect and doing unto others as you’d have others do unto you, I’ve got a policy about my natural hair. Feel free to look, questions and compliments are always welcome. Touch at your own risk.