“You Can Touch My Hair” Exhibit: A Setback for Black Women?

Afro GoddessHave you ever had someone ask you, “Can I touch your hair?‘ Or better yet, have you had someone reach up to your freshly permed, pressed, braided, coiffed, twisted, weaved, or blown-out afro-puff to rub their grubby little finger tips through your carefully styled tresses? Well, I have. Anyone who knows me knows I have rocked the ‘fro to braids to weaves to twists to perms and every derivation of everything in between. And, I have had people of all races ask or un-invitedly reach into my hair. Well, needless to say, that has gotten old for me. But, for Antonia Opiah, founder of Un-ruly.com, the curiosity drove her to create the public art exhibit “You Can Touch My Hair” in New York City. The public display of real-life curly and kinky haired women, which debuted last week, has been met with mixed reviews. So, I guess it’s time to offer my own.

When I first came across this story, I went through several stages of emotions. First, I was flabbergasted. It made me remember my summer away at Syracuse University where my WASP roommate rubbed my arm and touched my braids then looked me squarely in my face with her blue eyes and said, “This is so cool, I get to share a room with a REAL black person.” In that moment, I felt like a big-bosomed woman being discovered in the jungles of Africa. Or, a special species of animal only found in the rarest of climates. I felt less human than I had at any point in my life before that. Little did I know, that experience in my junior year of high school would become a social norm for me as I traversed college and professional life away from my predominantly black community. But, in any case, hearing of this “art exhibit” left me feeling extremely disheartened. So, I kept researching in the hopes that I could find a better way to handle this thing.

Based on the accounts from folks at the exhibit, most of the “touchers” were in fact women of color themselves. Conversely, whites mostly seemed to walk by without even gesturing toward the exhibit. Unsurprisingly, most folks just looked on instead of interacting with the black women on display. In my research, the harshest criticism of Opiah’s exhibit actually came from a non-American news source. Reni Eddo-Lodge compared the evolutionary exhibit to the “Hottentot Venus” display of the early 19th century about the world’s first Jezebel, Saartjie Baartman. As “an African woman sold into slavery, Baartman was brought to London in 1810 as the ‘Hottentot Venus’ and exhibited as a freak of nature in London and France. After her death, she was dissected like a scientific specimen.” While the imagery is disturbing, I can’t help but share in Eddo-Lodge’s assertions that Opiah’s efforts are strikingly similar.

It was in remembering this story that the “can I touch your hair?” phenomena brought on a wave of new emotions for me. I became angry but not at anyone in particular. I was angry because I was hurt. It took me back to when I first read Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen, discovering how black women had historically been treated as lab animals rather than humans. And, after feeling angry and hurt, I just got sad again. And here, in sadness, I remain. To think that by 2013 black women are still being petted, observed, and experimented on by onlookers is just plain saddening. What does it say of exhibits like these that they have to exist in the first place? And, what does it say about black women when we feel that educating people about our hair or culture must become a personal crusade?

afro and pearlsHave we just accepted other-ism? Have we simply given up on demanding that we be looked at as equal inhabitants of God’s green Earth? How long will we allow ourselves to occupy the plane between human and animal or specimen before we acknowledge our own right to live freely? Women of color should, instead of displaying ourselves on the streets of New York City to be poked and prodded, ask for recognition. Proper recognition only asks that women of color, black women in particular, be seen as normal rather than labeled in some taboo and strange manner.

Last week, someone asked me if they could touch my Senegalese Twists. I obliged. Knowing that as an Asian American, she likely knew little about my hairstyle, I rationalized her inquisition. I told her of their origin, the process I used to install them, and everything else she wanted to know. I didn’t feel weird. But, I did feel different. I felt like a stranger. And, I truly believe that women of color have accepted these feelings as the norm. We behave as though we don’t belong. And, we have given up on demanding that our hair, bodies, and culture be treated as equal.

So, is this exhibit a setback for black women? I can’t be certain. One thing I am sure of though is that it definitely does not develop the conversation around black hair or the black female phenotype in any measurable way. To me, it seems to be yet another failed social experiment wherein black women’s coping mechanisms have outweighed the good sense to simply demand more of our peers.

I am not sure how I will react the next time someone asks me to touch my hair. But, I do know how it will make me feel. Maybe it’s time we express those feelings rather than acquiescing in the face of our ongoing social misrecognition.

Comments

  1. Chuck Kinsey says:

    It is certainly inappropriate to touch anyone without permission or to treat a person as an object rather than a uniquely created individual of infinite value. However, it seems these women are trying to voluntarily offer enlightenment and break down barriers of ignorance while having fun. I had similar experience as a white person in rural Haiti where black children would come uninvited, touch my skin and run away giggling.