Random Person: “Oh, my God! Your hair is so AWESOME!
Jane: “Thanks so much!”
Random Person: “Can I touch it?” (Hands reaching out)
Jane: “Whaaaaat?” (Looks with piercing side-eye while tilting my head away)
After going natural 3 years ago, I expected many things to change in my life. I knew there would be both hard times and enjoyable experiences. I knew I might be surprised by what my real, unaltered hair actually looked like. I knew I would have to buy different hair products and start to take care of my hair differently. I had no idea however, that so many strange people would want to touch my hair!
This has by far been the most shocking thing that has come with being natural. That’s right, I’ve had no problem giving up relaxers, I have enjoyed getting to know my hair again, and I have laughed through those bad hair days. The fact that random people come up to me, wanting to touch a part of me out of nowhere is the weirdest thing to me. I mean, it is just my hair after all. It is something that I have had my whole life and it has never been that interested to people before. It makes me wonder, what is this new fascination with my hair?
A few months ago, I attended a friend’s baby shower. When I arrived I didn’t know any of the other women there, but I immediately noticed three women (who turned out to be sisters) who had hair similar to mine, so I struck up a conversation with them. We hit it off right away and of course we ended up talked about our hair – the great times, the embarrassing moments, the frustrating bad hair days, and the amazing self-love that comes with embracing our natural hair. It was one of those organic, sisterly bonds that only naturals can relate to. After 2 hours of learning intimate details about their hair struggles and triumphs, I gave them my blog cards and had to leave. As I made my way to the door, one of the other women at the baby shower made a beeline straight for me. With her hands headed towards my twist-out, she says, “Can I see what your hair feels like?” I guess all the hair talk made her believe my curls were available for exploration. Possibly, she thought all the bonding gave her a pass at asking for consent first. Either way, my body froze, but I could tell I had a confused look on my face as I saw her fingers touch one of my twists. I kept thinking, “Really! Did that just happen? Did she just touch my hair before I could even say yes or no? SERIOUSLY?!!”
The Sara Baartman Effect
I have many more stories like that one, and I know that many other naturals have this same experience. Confusion and surprise are not the only things that run through my mind when this happens. After the initial shock wears off, I always think of Sara Baartman, and I wonder what is motivating their curiosity about my hair.
Sara was a young African women who was taken from her homeland of Cape Town by two men who brought her to London in 1810. Because of the oversized proportions of her body, these men made her perform in freak show exhibits around Europe under the name “Hottentot Venus.” Sara’s story is a pivotal one when it comes to understanding the Black female experience.
Sara Baartman was the embodiment of the American stereotype for Black women. Her ample curves and large breasts were seen as visual confirmation that all African (and thus slave) woman were hyper-sexualized. Her form was used as justification for the rape of African women. Sara became the blueprint for degrading and humiliating Black women. Instead of being praised for her womanly beauty as the Black Venus was before her, her form was used as ammunition for ridicule, spectacle, and commodification of Black bodies.
Because she was not seen as a full human being, she was poked, prodded, and viewed as a sexual object. She was even subjected to examination by George Cuvier, a professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Natural History during that time. Sara had no choice in the matter. According to those who consumed her body, she did not own her body and therefore had no say in what was done to her.
This notion that Black women’s bodies are available for non-consensual exploration is still present today. It shows up every time someone asks to touch my hair, reaches out their hands and touches me, before they even get my permission first. The belief is that, my physical boundaries don’t matter as much as their curiosity. They see something that makes me different from them (my hair), and they immediately must know more about it, whether or not I want them to touch my hair is secondary. Why else would someone not wait two seconds to hear my thoughts on the matter before they fulfill their desire to touch my hair?
This experience makes Sara’s story, my story, and the story of every Black woman in America. Sara was seen as different (from White women), and so she had to be explored to fulfill other people’s curiosity, regardless of whether it humiliated her or not. I call this The Sara Baartman Effect.
“You Can Touch My Hair” Exhibit
Last June, Antonia Opiah, of un-ruly.com did an art exhibit accompanied by a short film titled, You Can Touch My Hair. The exhibit included three Black women who stood in a public space holding signs that read, “You Can Touch My Hair.” They offered their hair up for anyone who wanted to stroke their locs or fluff their blow-out. Curious people came by, asked questions, touched their hair, and took pictures. I appreciated how the short film also included interviews with Black women who told their hair touching horror stories in addition to Michaela Angela Davis (The Goddess!) who gave a personal and historical reflection on how Black women first learn the most primary rule about Black hair: that something is wrong with it.
Nearby the exhibit, were women who opposed the project holding signs that read, “YOU CANNOT TOUCH MY HAIR,” “TOUCH MY HAIR WITH YOUR HAND & I’LL TOUCH YOUR FACE WITH MY FIST,” and another sign that read, “I AM NOT YOUR SARA BAARTMAN.” In my opinion, their point was that the public hair exhibit felt eerily similar to the public humiliation Sara endured. As people came by to see if an afro really does feel like a Brillo Pad, they couldn’t help but see the similarities to Sara’s performance as a “freak” for the leering eyes and sweaty palms of mesmerized European spectators. Seeing Black women allowing random people touch their hair was reminiscent of how Black women have been historically forced into the passive role of visual object. However, it appeared that the models in the exhibit had full ownership of their experience and willingly participated in the project. For them it was more about dismantling myths about Black hair and being open to other people’s curiosity.
The Right Approach
Part of me thinks I’d be with the exhibit protesters holding the signs that read, “I AM NOT YOUR SARA BAARTMAN,” but most of me wants to have some understanding for those people who want to touch my hair. I still have to wonder do they want to touch my hair because they truly do not know and want to learn more, is it because they want to connect to my experience, or is it because they feel a sense of entitlement to other people’s bodies? Any of those reasons are human nature, but some of them I do not welcome and others I do. And it is my right to do so.
While explaining the purpose for the exhibit, Antonia Opiah stated, “Curiousity is the first step to enlightenment, but we have to question the nature of that curiosity.” She says the purpose of the project “wasn’t supposed to make anyone comfortable. We wanted to draw the parallel between a very literal display and the not so literal displays that happened in everyday life.” Finally, she relates that, “We do have to be aware of how we let our curiosities play out and how we are treating people as a result of them.”
As more women go natural and defend our human right to wear our hair how it grows out of our heads, the public will have no choice but to adjust and accept us for how we choose to represent ourselves. There is a shift taking place that we will all have to adjust to and create a new normal. Until we reach that tipping point, there will be people who have this curiosity about Black hair and who will be faced with a dilemma as to how to address their curiosity. More people must start to examine their beliefs, their sense of entitlement, and what is making them curious about natural Black hair, because some of us will not stand for being someone’s science project.
Here’s my final tip…if you’re curious about my hair, first ask me about it, don’t ask to touch it right away. If after a healthy conversation, you ask to touch my hair (don’t reach while you ask) then wait for my reply. Don’t be offended if I say, “Actually, I’d prefer you not touch it.” Just be considerate and let it go. If you do get the privilege of touching my hair, wash your hands first!
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