Dear SF, Don't Touch My Hair

Jun 12 at 6am

On countless occasions, in a Mission bar, on the street, on BART, even at my office, I've had people ask to touch my hair. In some cases, they didn't even ask. Total strangers in the street, friends during dinner parties, drunk assholes at the bar, and “respected” colleagues in the workplace have beelined for my hair – patting and rubbing me as if I'm Bandit, the friendly neighborhood dog. These incidents leave me feeling violated, embarrassed, “othered,” and tired of living in a city with an inflated sense of progressiveness.

If you’re still wondering what could possibly be so “special” about my hair, there is nothing in particular. I’m just a black woman in San Francisco. But let me give you the backstory on how my personal relationship with my hair got tangled up.

Things got complicated on my tenth birthday. My mom pulled my sister and me out of school early for a surprise trip to the hair salon. I was beside myself with excitement when I learned that we would both be getting our hair relaxed (chemically straightened). For me, this was a “Black Mitzvah” of sorts. I no longer had to sit between my mother’s legs for hours as she combed the knots from my thick, unruly hair, plaiting it into neatly sculpted but what I considered childish braids. I was looking forward to having straight, pretty hair. Hair that would conform to the standards of what I learned to not only be beautiful but “normal.”

I was looking forward to having straight, pretty hair. Hair that would conform to the standards of what I learned to not only be beautiful but “normal.”

I fixated on these thoughts as the relaxer burned my scalp and tears welled up in my eyes. And I was relieved when the timer beeped, indicating it was finally time for the chemicals to be washed from my hair. This practice continued every couple of months until I got to college and shelved the “creamy crack” for good.

“Going natural” was a very conscious decision for me. It was empowering and a leap toward greater self-acceptance and love with which so many young women struggle. Black women have different motivations for relaxing their hair so I can’t slam the practice overall nor can I condemn weaves. I can only speak for myself when I say that I’m “happy to be nappy,” and the decrease in sales of relaxers is proof that many other black women are transitioning back to or sticking with their natural hair.

With that trend, I’ve noticed a growing fascination and, in some cases, controversy over natural hair styles. Several U.S. schools have implemented dress codes that prohibit natural hair do’s like Afro puffs (a black woman’s equivalent to a ponytail), braids, and dreadlocks. After coming under fire early this year for racial bias, the Army is finally reviewing its grooming guidelines that ban popular natural hairstyles. And recently a public art exhibit in New York explored the curiosity with black hair by having several black women hold signs that read “You Can Touch My Hair” in the busy streets of the city. 

It’s bizarre that the way my hair grows out of my head is a source of intrigue for some and deemed socially unacceptable, distracting, or unkempt to others.

I don’t plan on joining the Army and I’m not in school but on days when I’ve flat ironed my hair straight I’ve had co-workers tell me how much more professional I look. And when interviewing for jobs, I begrudgingly straighten it. It’s bizarre that the way my hair grows out of my head is a source of intrigue for some and deemed socially unacceptable, distracting, or unkempt to others. But what’s really absurd is when random people ask to touch it, or when I feel a frenetic hand in my fro. Even worse is when I object and am met with disbelief. When someone expresses that they don’t want to be touched, that wish should be respected. But privilege clouds judgment. Instead of apologies, I hear feeble excuses that focus on what they meant as opposed to addressing their actions and how it made me feel.

Depending on my mood and the perpetrator, I might take the time to deepen the dialogue and discuss the underlying issues. This can be uncomfortable. Despite San Francisco’s socially open and aware reputation, I’ve found that many people here don’t like to discuss race or privilege. But as Pearl Cleage once wrote, “Discomfort is always a necessary part of enlightenment.”

I was livid that once again I was expected to play the role of cross-cultural teacher with no genuine interest on the part of the “student” to learn about the politics of black hair.

A little more than a year ago, I was on an OkCupid date with a white guy who flooded me with a seemingly endless barrage of black hair questions. His curiosity peaked as he smiled and swiftly reached across the dinner table to grab a handful of my hair and ask, “Why don’t black women like their hair touched?” I was livid that once again I was expected to play the role of cross-cultural teacher with no genuine interest on the part of the “student” to learn about the politics of black hair. I pinned my two-strand twists back into place and decided it was time for shit to get real. I explained that despite being a black woman, I can’t speak for all of us, but that the uninvited touching of my hair, a part of my body, is a form of racial objectification and reminds me of a time when my ancestors were sold like property and used at the whim of others. And I told the story of Sarah Baartman, a South African woman who was forced to tour Europe as a freak show, due to her large buttocks and seemingly non-European physique. After several seconds of awkward silence and a subject change, I excused myself to the bathroom and walked out of the restaurant.

I’m sure there are many well-meaning people who don’t want to cause offense in these situations. Curiosity is okay, but there is a fine line between interest and treating black people like an urban safari. If you have questions about black hair or the black experience in general, approach a close black friend. If you don’t have black friends, you might consider diversifying your circle.

But should you feel compelled to reach out and touch, just remember it's usually best to keep your hands to yourself.

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