A debate that seems to not be had enough is the debate surrounding the politics of black hair, particularly black women’s hair. For many who possess tight afro-curls, hair is not simply ‘just hair’. Naomi Campbell once proclaimed in Vogue, ‘I Am NOT My Hair’, recalling an encounter with a friend of hers who claimed that she was ‘almost’ English except for ‘that’ – ‘that’ being her Afro-Caribbean hair. Whether it is straightened, put in a weave, placed under a wig, secured in braids, or rocked in a ‘fro, black women’s hair is often a point of curiosity, puzzlement and judgement. Now, when we find ourselves perplexed, we may reach out to touch that which we do not understand. However, should this be seen as an ‘invasion’ and a means of objectification OR should we view it as a simple act of human child-like curiosity?
In this fiery piece, Tele Ogunyemi tells us what the question, ‘Can I Touch Your Hair?’ means to her.
“Can I touch your hair?”
The thorny question that every black woman has been asked at least once in her life.
We all respond differently to this question. Some may say, ‘You may touch my hair but do not then be surprised if I touch your face… with my fist.’ Others may be more generous and murmur, with that knowing eye-roll, “Oh ! Go On then!’
Having spent almost a year living abroad with my newly sprouted Afro in both Chile and Colombia, I have experienced the full gamut of reactions to my hairstyle. From playful touching and occasional sniffing for that delicious Keracare Essential Oils scent from Chilean work colleagues, to English friends in a sorry state of inebriation conducting experiments into how many objects – cocktails umbrellas, pencils, flowers – my hair can hold. Even perplexed Afro-Colombians have asked me how I make my hair ‘stand up like that.’ Sometimes, the touching during these encounters was consensual. However, more often than not, the hand or object in question was already in motion before I could reply. Whilst the un-permitted invasion of my personal space will never be condoned, I have never construed the question, ‘Can I touch your hair?’, as dehumanising or degrading. Although, some women view it as an invasive and alienating question, I continue to believe that it comes from a place of innocent and genuine human curiosity about natural Afro hair.
So, when is it acceptable to touch my hair?
Well, it all depends on who you are, my hairstyle at any given moment and the social context. I would always bristle when my relaxed hair was touched mainly because of the amount of product I would use to keep it moisturised. I would rather leave others with a firm handshake and glowing impression of my personality and not the greasy remnants of my follicular essence. Interestingly enough, the few people who would stroke my long, relaxed hair as they wondered if it was ‘’all real”, were always black women who never bothered asking for permission to touch it. It seems that all black hair belongs to all black women. Nowadays, I am rocking a fly ass ‘fro, and almost everyone, regardless of ethnicity or gender, wants a piece of the action. As long as they are friends or likeable acquaintances in an informal social environment who ask politely, I am usually happy to oblige. But not more than once. I operate on the understanding that once you have felt my hair, the process of demystification has begun. I am more than happy to have a detailed conversation about the ins and outs of my hair-care regimen but unless you are a friend stroking my head in a neutral way, you have no reason to be treating me like a doll and cooing over my hair. You know that my hair is different and you should be able to accept this. However, I do also acknowledge that this takes time and so one must be patient.
Nonetheless, not all Black Women share my willingness to let others touch their hair. Indeed, opinions on the subject remain polarised as proven by the recent and controversial ‘You Can Touch My hair’ exhibition-cum-social experiment in New York, where African-American women of all hair textures wore signs inviting perfect strangers to touch their hair in an attempt to educate people about the politics of black hair. The exhibition provoked much outrage with its detractors decrying the event as a ‘petting zoo’ and the perpetuation of the historical objectification of the black female body. A pertinent point, as this is undoubtedly a phenomenon where issues of both gender and race intersect. Let’s be real: enticing as it may be, ain’t nobody trying to touch the smooth and closely shaven head of a black man or any man, for that matter, much less so without his permission.
However, I am a Black British-Nigerian woman. I am an ethnic minority. I recognise that I am rarely seen in the corridors of power. Nor am I represented in mainstream culture, Afro or not, in a way that does not reproduce and perpetuate the functions of White Patriarchy (Rihanna, Beyoncé, ahem). In a world that has succeeded in globalising ‘Whiteness’ as the apex of the Aesthetic, I am invisible or at best, marginalised.
And let me be frank, this is an issue of aesthetics as hair has and always will be a core part of the female aesthetic identity. Everywhere I look all of the features which distinguish me as a black woman, chief amongst which are my hair and skin, are nowhere to be seen in their natural state. My hair is always perfectly coiffed in the style of a long, wavy mane grown in hours thanks to skilful hairstylists. My skin is often lightened. (A perfect example of this is Beyoncé’s L’Oréal Ad Campaign in 2008). The hair and skin I wear are not my own. They are an imitation and an embarrassing aspiration to a type of beauty which was never mine. Of the few visible, successful black women in the world, from Michelle Obama to Beyoncé and Rihanna to Halle Berry and Kerry Washington, none of them ever wear their hair naturally. Of the many dialogues that we black women have about our hair, the questions that are never asked are, ‘Why is wearing my hair naturally not an option?’, Why is it not ‘professional’, ‘respectable’ or ‘beautiful’? Why is what I naturally am still considered to be an aberration? This is a matter of aesthetics because it is a matter of perception, namely how both we and others see us as Black Women. Like gods, the forces of White Patriarchy seek to mould us in their own image. These are the norms which we internalise and hence perpetuate. As Black Women, it seems that we cannot see ourselves anywhere in this world but neither do we want to.
Therefore, as a black feminist, my hair is political. The way I choose to wear it is culturally loaded because it shows how I deal with my invisibility or at best, my marginal position in such a world. It is never a neutral expression. To deny this would be disingenuous and smacks of ‘the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the glass’.
Therefore, my personal decision to cut off my long relaxed hair and rock an Afro was my own way of sticking my middle finger up to the intersectional juggernaut that is White Patriarchy – a system which dehumanises and objectifies me as a woman, whilst simultaneously excluding me as a ‘Racial Other’ by suggesting that the face of success, respectability and beauty is nearly always white and that I must conform to be any one of the above. Hence, I construe the act of anyone asking to touch my hair not as mere objectification, but as an enquiry into my subjectivity as a Black Woman. The desire to reach out and touch that which we don’t always understand is a positive almost childlike gesture of humanity. We touch and ask questions about things which we want to discover and appreciate. Naturally, there is always an element of objectification inherent in any act of visual perception. But to what extent is it even possible to perceive an ‘Other’ without objectifying them? To me, the question ‘Can I touch your hair?’ is the beginning of a process of enquiry. What it really says to me is ‘You look different and I want to understand this particular thing which makes you different’.
This is something that all humans deal with to varying degrees: How many of us have asked someone else an awkward question about a part of their identity, physical or otherwise, that we do not understand and which makes them different to ourselves?
I know I have.
Nonetheless, it is difficult, disconcerting and frustrating to be confronted with the fact of your ‘Otherness’ with such startling regularity. As an open person, I am quite content with the fact that my hair is a part of my visual identity, which distinguishes me from many other women. It is for this reason that I will continue to let people touch my Afro (but only once) because I want them to see and experience what it means for a Black Woman to be proud of all that she is in spite of existing in a culture that has never seen her thus, if it even sees her at all.