And Here’s Why
By Devisadaria Duchine-Khauli
Imagine if someone were to come up to you and touch you in a way that was unsolicited. How would you feel? If you felt uncomfortable, would you express your feelings? For Black women, having their personal spaces invaded and their hair touched without permission is an everyday occurrence.
Touching a Black woman’s hair without her permission is a racist act because Black people, Black women in particular, have always been objectified. Due to racism and racialized sexism throughout history, Black women have had their images distorted and their personal spaces systematically invaded. Since Black women are judged by Eurocentric beauty standards, wearing their hair in its natural state, i.e afros, locs, twists, and braids, is seen as abnormal. Because natural Black hair is seen as abnormal, the practice of touching Black women’s hair renders their personal spaces unimportant, therefore dehumanizing them. Many Black women, myself included, have likened this practice to feeling as if they were animals being petted. Many have reported that they’re even accosted by strangers. I’ve experienced this more than once while riding BART or while in other public places. Oftentimes when the person touching the hair is asked to stop or told that it is discomforting, they become offended and may accuse the victim of being touchy, uptight, or hypersensitive, forgetting that they entered the person’s personal space without asking. Touching someone’s hair without their permission puts them in a vulnerable position, especially if it’s done at work or in a public space. They may feel as if they are unable to tell the person to stop touching for fear they may lose their job, get suspended from work or school, or be seen as mentally unstable.
As a natural hairstylist there is no end to the complaints that I hear about this phenomenon. After styling one young lady’s hair, she looked in the mirror, smiled, and told me how pleased she was with her hair. Then her smile quickly turned into a scowl and she said, “Oh shit! Here it comes. This is when the white people start touching my hair and asking a lot of questions. ‘How did you do that and how long did it take? Do Black people wash their hair often and how long does it take you to wash your hair?’ And on, and on.”
For many, the thought of touching a Black woman’s hair conjures images of Sarah Baartman and her treatment. Saartjie or Sarah Baartman was brought to England from South Africa around 1810 by Hendrik Cezar with promises of riches and fame. She was known as the Hottentot Venus and was placed on display as an exhibit for scientists to study the Black female anatomy, as well as being placed in a freak show with the Piccadilly Circus in London, England. Her body was presented as abnormal when compared to the white female anatomy. According to some reports, while performing in the circus she was displayed in a garment covering her genitals and an animal collar. Wealthy white patrons paid more to be allowed to touch and grope her.
Baartman was even disrespected in death. She died in 1815 at the age of 26 and upon her death, zoologist Georges Cuvier made a full plaster cast of her body and afterwards dissected her. Her skeleton was removed, along with her brain and vagina which were preserved in jars and placed at Paris’ Museum of Man as an exhibit. They remained there until 2002 when South African President at the time, Nelson Mandela, sent letters to France fighting for the return of her remains. Baartman was eventually laid to rest in Hankey, in Eastern Cape. Although she was seen as a free woman, Baartman had almost no control over her own body. Her story is often compared to the stories of Black women experiencing unwanted hair touching today.
Black women, we must let people know that it is unacceptable to touch our hair without our permission, and if time and the situation permits, we must explain why it’s unacceptable. It may not be as deep as the Sarah Baartman comparison. It may be a discomfort with the invasion of personal space. At any rate, as uncomfortable as it may seem we must have the dialogue. By doing so, perhaps we will educate many, because some don’t know that the act is considered offensive to most people.
Curiosity is natural, however you should never just reach for someone’s hair. The solution to the problem of unwanted hair touching is simple; admire from afar and never touch without asking. This is basic etiquette. Should you ask, don’t expect a yes, and you should not feel offended if the person says no. And remember that even if it isn’t your intent, unexpectedly touching someone’s hair is rude, a violation of personal space, and yes, even racist.
To learn more check out: “You Can Touch My Hair,” on http://www.un-ruly.com
The documentary can also be found on YouTube.