Re: “Can I touch it?” The Fascination with Natural, African-American Hair

 “Your hair is so neat”. “Can I touch it?”

Remember that sesame street video? Click on the image to hear the song..

When I walked into work this morning, one of the students I worked with showed me an interesting article titled “Can I touch it? The Fascination with Natural, African-American Hair that touched on an experience that can be all too common for some African-Americans who choose to wear their hair natural.

In the article, an experience had by writer Tamara Winfrey Harris was recalled in which she narrowly escaped a random petting by a curious, middle-aged, white woman.

“She missed by mere seconds, she was actually going to grab my hair as I walked past her,”

Winfrey Harris recalled.

“It’s a common tale shared by women of color whose natural hair can attract stares, curiosity, comments and the occasional stranger who desires to reach out and touch. The reaction to such fondling can range from amusement to outrage over the invasion of personal space.”

One colleague of mine who, in sharing her frustrations after having had this experience several times would just say “No! This is not a petting zoo!”

After reading the article together, this student, who identified as being a person who was Indian then asked me if people, or even more specifically people who were white have ever tried to touch my hair before…

It didn’t take me very long to say yes. Sometimes, at least in my experience the touching, or attempted touching has been accompanied by questioning.

As one African-American male who locks his hair, these are some examples of questions or comments I have received from people who are white about my appearance.

“How long does it take to do it? I wish I had all that free time on my hands.”

 “Hey, you wear your hair just like the black football players” 

 “Are you from Jamaica?” 

“Bob Marley!! You know, I just think that Bob Marley was such a Revolutionary. I love his music.”

 “It must be hard to get a job like that. Employers like that clean-cut look. “

Lets face it, whether their hair is straightened or not, African-Americans and other people of color face challenges in carving out standards of beauty for themselves in society. For those who decide to wear their hair natural, additional challenges can show up in their everyday lives.

This video produced in 2008 by Kiri Davis entitled “A Girl Like Me” hits on some of the struggles young African-American women can face in defining themselves and their realities against societal standards.

“Color is more than skin deep for young African-American women struggling to define themselves”

In terms of beauty and appearance, I still encounter the conscious and unconscious assertion that lighter is better, whiter is better and the closer one is to that ideal, the greater the value they will have in society.

I am also aware of the perceived importance of having straight hair.  From experiencing being teased as a child by other African-American children for being of a darker complexion, to watching children that I grew up with lament over how “nappy” their hair was, to being told that I would not be able to get a job because of my decision to lock my own hair, I see the idea of this perceived inferiority to whiteness as being still prevalent.

We are taught misinformation about ourselves and others.

As you may have seen in the video, and as I see in my daily life, unfortunately, some people of color can internalize the negative messages they receive about themselves and act out that internalization out in a variety of ways.

I’ve always liked having a lot of hair on my head. I can remember being in high school (when my locks were but a small afro) and being approached by one of the sports coaches, who was African-American.

“Its alot of girls out here. You should cut that off boy, you aint’ gonna get any of these young girls around here with your head like that, and good luck getting a job.”

Just as I came to understand that my manhood was not and is not defined by the amount of “currency” I have, (in the form of women) and the amount of women I “conquer”on the unwritten, yet strongly defined road of sexual conquest that some men are socialized to see as a mandatory prerequisite to defining their own value, I also came to understand that I had been taught a great deal of misinformation about my racial identity as well.

For me, having the opportunity to be exposed to what I saw as  positive real live examples of people and situations  which challenged that misinformation is what led me to challenge things myself.

However, the reality is,

Some might see the coach’s words, particularly the part about me not being able to get a job as being a protective factor because for many, society does hold a view of a “certain kind” of look that defines what is “right” and “professional” and, in this writer’s opinion, many people of color can find themselves outside of that defined standard.

As a result fears both real and perceived about being discriminated against based on outward presentation can lead some to think, say, or do things which (although sometimes harmful to ourselves or others) are meant to minimize the instances and impact of that discrimination.

Where aspirations to become a better humanitarian can factor in

Our communities are still very segregated, and we can sometimes be either unwilling or unable to interact with those that are different from ourselves. The level to which we can avoid or ignore one another without experiencing any consequences greatly depends on our level of privilege.

Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separatedDr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

In engaging in conversations with people who were white who have had questions about my hair, aside from reminding myself of certain realities that can usually give me a strong foundation from which to begin, I also try to assume that people are trying as best they can.

However, as I’ve discussed with friends, family members, and colleagues alike, consistently being in situations where one is either among a few, or the only person of color being looked upon to take advantage of “teachable moments” can be physically and emotionally draining at times, because it can put an undue burden on the targeted person to be seen as a representative  of their group.

Photo Credit: http://ilovemyhair.bigcartel.com

Parts of our identities can place us in a position of privilege, while others can leave us vulnerable to discrimination. I believe that in areas in which we are privileged, there are ways we can seek out information about oppressed groups to increase our own understanding without putting a burden on the individual to speak for their own group. This is where Allyhood can play a pivotal role.

One example of working against the misinformation around the idea that blackness and natural hair automatically spells doom and gloom in the work world can be found in the “Naturally Professional Series” on curlynikki.com. This series was

“created to make a positive statement. Our intent is to disprove false and long held beliefs that wearing ones hair in a natural style — including locs, sisterlocs, and loose natural hair — makes a person somehow not professional enough for a corporate environment. Natural hair IS professional, beautiful, well taken care of, and welcome in any kind of workplace.”

People of color choose to wear their hair natural (or not) for a variety of reasons. One task that I feel must continue to be taken on is to help young people of color, permed hair or otherwise to develop and maintain a positive sense of self into adulthood, and to show them counterexamples to some of the popular but negative messages they receive.

Grace & Peace,

From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins


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Relando Thompkins-Jones, MSW, LLMSW

I'm a social justice worker interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and using peace as non-violent action. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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24 Responses

  1. Adrianne Bailey says:

    Wow, I can definately relate to this one. I have been wearing my natural hair for about a year and a half now and people ask to pet my hair at least twice a week. I never realized how much the words “Can I touch it?” Could irritate me. But I can understand their ignorance because I was there once before. What I found interesting is that, from personal experience, Black women are usually the only people who give me any negative energy regarding my hair and they often have very negative and insulting comments to say.

  2. Unfortunately Adrianne, some people of color can internalize the negative messages they receive about themselves and act out that internalization out in a variety of ways.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Jessica Reese

    Your comment is very true Relando. I am a newly natural (as of December) and honestly, I prefer the “can I touch it?” response WAAAY more than some of the crude comments I get from my own mom concerning “why” did I choose to wear my nappy hair. I would think she would celebrate the fact that I can feel beautiful wearing the natural hair that SHE gave me, rather than trying to fit into a standard placed on me by society (whether we want to admit it or not). It baffles me how people, our own people, have to try to UNDERSTAND instead of celebrating or admiring our natural physical attributes. Even funnier when I get comments from people that are not of color like, “I love your hair, etc”.

    Now, in some cases it can be irritating because it makes you feel like a museum display piece, but at the same time it reminds you of your uniqueness, distinctness, the “gifts” (whether we choose to accept them or not) from our heritage.

    All I know is that going natural was just something I wanted to try because of the Memphis heat and because I have always prefered natural hair over perms; but after I have done it, it is truly a testament of freedom. And as a woman (since we place so much importance on our hair), it feels good to OWN mine, instead of letting it own me. Alot of ladies won’t admit to this, but it’s true.

    In any case, you are right I TRULY want our babies to embrace a positive sense of self, and realize that altering yourself image,albeit chemically or any other way, does not change who you are. They need to know that they don’t HAVE to fit in to have purpose, damn I wish I was taught this lol.

  4. Cinnamondiva says:

    This is brilliant! I am a woman of mixed race, with white skin and very kinky hair. I’ve been made to feel ashamed of my hair since childhood. People have called it nappy, ugly, stiff, and yes…they have used the “N” word in reference to my hair.

    Lately I’ve been playing with the idea of being natural. I’m sick of spending money at Dominican beauty shops and having my thick, full, kinky curls ruined by harsh chemicals and heat. I want to be able to swim and work out and walk in the rain. ;)

    My mother has actually told me that my hair is “unmanageable” and that it won’t be “pretty” without a relaxer.

    I don’t see too many natural sistas here in South Florida. When I do see a Black woman rocking some puffs or two-strand twists, it is like seeing a unicorn…that is how rare natural hair is in my neck of the woods.

    I would never touch somebody’s hair without their permission but I have experienced people of all backgrounds touching my hair and generally being jerks about it. Their comments range from merely ignorant to extremely offensive and racist. Like the time I was in college and a white guy touched my hair and said that it had a “weird” texture. I could offer many more examples of the foolishness, but not today.

    Anyway, Relando…I appreciate this piece. Thank you so much. :)

  5. @Cinnamondiva, I hear you. Your comment about comparing the rarity of seeing black women with natural hair in your area to sighting a unicorn is really telling. Unfortunately today, many people still see natural hair as being rare or exotic.

    Even in thinking about all of the times I’ve been told that I wear my hair “like the black football players”, I think “no this style’s been around for a long time, its not just recently emerging”. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

    Although you’ve been made to feel ashamed in the past, I hope you’ve now come to know that you’ve been taught misinformation about what it means to be attractive and a person of color, and that those two words can be mentioned in the same sentence together.

    @Jessica and Cinnamondiva and Adrianne thank you so much for reading. I too have received critical statements from people, but it hurts all the more when it comes from family members and loved ones. I’ve even had some people use “biblical scripture” to argue that 1. That locking my hair was sinful, and 2. That It is wrong to grow it out as long as I have. Funny thing is, in those instances, they could never quite pinpoint the reference.

    Jessica I also love the part of your response that said “you dont have to fit in to have purpose”.

  6. ariesanna says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I have shared it on fb.
    As a white mother to both my biracial daughter and african son, I have often struggled witht their complaints about children wanting to touch their hair, especially my daughters. Although now 15 and learning different styles she can rock, when she was in kindergarden she had to learn to simply tell people they could not touch her hair or that she did not like it when they did so without asking. Needless to say it often made her feel singled out.
    It is interesting to me that many adoptive moms (I refer to mothers I have met through adopting from Ethiopia) feel very stongly that keeping their childrens hair natural is an important element to connecting to their heritage. Often in the black community this is seen as not “doing” their hair, even though the childs hair is clean and combed. I have heard from white mothers who are approached in criticism and have to defend their choice to keep their childs hair natural.
    When my daughter is older she can make choices of her own accord as to what she will do with her hair. But I have been very glad to have made the choice to have natural hairstyles for my children.

  7. @ ariesanna,

    Thank you for sharing the article, as well as your own personal experiences. I can see parallels in your comment about your daughter feeling singled for telling others that they could not touch her hair with Jessica’s earlier comment about feeling like a “museum display piece”. I think its great that you’re trying to help your daughters to establish and maintain a positive self-image about themselves and their hair! I think estabilshing that positive identity early on will help them to be able to make informed choices about their appearance, as well as other areas in their lives when they are older.

  8. Cinnamondiva says:

    Thanks for your response, Relando. ;)

    Yes, I’ve had to try to define beauty on my own terms because I was always conditioned to see myself as ugly and inferior.

    I’m very light-skinned but like a lot of other black/biracial women, I have battled feelings of not being pretty enough or acceptable enough.

    I grew up believing that I was ugly and that my hair was ugly. Other people told me that and I believed it. Now that I’m nearly 30, I’m trying to find my own way in life and learn to love myself despite what others might say.

    It’s quite a journey.

    • Beauty can be represented in many ways. You’re right. The task of forging your own terms and expectations in the face of criticism and rejection for not fitting into the established norms is a difficult, but worthy task.

      I agree with you in saying that it is quite a journey indeed.

  9. “Hey, you wear your hair just like the black football players”

    Wow – that was the first time I heard that one. This was a great post, thanks

    Chiffon, Lace and Leather Fashion Blog

  10. LovEternal says:

    Another great post!! I have so much to say about hair. Did you see Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” documentary? Its informative and interesting.

    Well, I experimented with weaves because I felt my relaxed hair was not strait enough!! I felt like I had to get retouches every 2 weeks instead of every 6 weeks, as recommended. The weaves cost too much to maintain. I view my hair as a dilemma. I have very thick hair and as a child I was “tender headed”. My first relaxer was a miracle. I no longer had to cry when I put a comb thru my hair.

    I went thru the stage where I felt I had to get my hair braided to prove I was a proud black woman. The afro was out of the question. But, it took 12 hrs to braid and that was the end of that. I wanted something simple and quick and manageable. So, I still get my relaxers but my hair is still high maintenance. Having the choice to either roll my hair and look like my grandmother, or burn my hair out with a curling iron every day. I chose to experiment with wigs. Human hair and synthetic. I found that it is a quick and easy way to keep my real hair from breaking off. And, having the versatility to try different styles and colors without ruining my real hair.

    But, now I get questions from people at work? I take “breaks” from wigs and wear my relaxed style and people ask “did you cut your hair?” The next few days I put my wig on again and they look bewildered, asking “you did something different to your hair?”And then when I go thru the cycle again where i take my wig off, its right back to “you cut your hair?” Do I have to state the obvious or do people really think my hair grew that long in a few days? It gets frustrating to be on display like that around non-blacks. But, I just play along without really “explaining” anything.

    Now, the whole issue about to swim or not to swim? That is a loooong story that Im not gonna go into. Nothing is simple when it comes to black women and their hair!!

    Thanks for posting!

    • Hey! I just wanted you to know that I did finally get around to seeing the “Good Hair” documentary, and I agree with you in thinking it was both interesting and very informative.

      Thank you for your continual support and readership!

  11. Maria says:

    I enjoyed reading your article. Although I do admit that I have thought to myself “I wonder if I can touch it” I was raised to be respectful. I think that many people are curious but also lack social graces. I also wonder how fake breasts feel but I would never walk up to another woman and ask her to touch her breasts, the same way that I would not ask to touch a pregnant woman’s belly. Very well written, thanks for sharing

    • And thank you Maria for reading and taking the time to comment. I appreciate your honesty about your thoughts, because I think it takes courage to share honestly. Sometimes these conversations can get pretty intense, and because of that, some people might not be completely honest because of concerns about being attacked or criticized for sharing their lived experiences. However it is my hope to use this space as a safe place to have honest dialogues about challenging issues. Thank you for your courage and candor.

  12. Great post. It’s funny, when I skimmed the title and saw the words “can I touch it” and hair, I immediately flashed back to elementary school. I was blessed to attend a school back in the early/mid-80’s that was nearly evenly split between black and white students.

    My perspective is a little different though, since I’m white, and I was the one whose hair was always being played with. I remember on rainy days, when we watched a film inside instead of going outside, there would always be a black girl wanting to sit behind me and play with my hair.

    As far as I remember, I never minded. Of course, these girls were friends and not strangers! I just assumed they thought it was fun because it was different from their own hair. I know I was curious about their hair, but I’m assuming they knew better than to go home with their hair all undone!

    It is kind of funny though -how little white people understand about black people’s hair. Bear with us folks… we just don’t know! I remember a black co-worker saying one time she had to microwave her hair. I must have given her the most perplexing look because she just burst out laughing realizing I had no idea what she was talking about. She proceeded to explain. I learned something new. Microwaves aren’t just for soup!

    I wish everyone could have that kind of laughing and learning experience when faced with a new or unfamiliar situation. Though, adults should definitely show a bit of restraint with the hair-touching! I don’t want a stranger grabbing hold of my hair!! That’s just disrespecting a person’s personal space. I agree with a previous comment -it’s like touching a pregnant woman’s belly! We just don’t do that people.

    Take care all.
    rl

  13. Susan Frazier-Kouass says:

    Did you check out the short film series recently as part of the CEW 50th Year Celebration on the UM campus? Here is one of the short films entilted “You can Touch My Hair”

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/21/you-can-touch-my-hair-film_n_4136229.html

    • Thank you for sharing this Susan! I’m watching it now. I heard of the You can touch my hair event in NYC, but I didn’t know that they made a film about it. Perhaps I’ll share it here on the blog. I really appreciate you bringing this to my attention.

  14. zambianlady says:

    Talking about you having dreadlocks, reminds me of the time a friend moved to the US where I was based at the time. One day she said it was unfortunate that our organization did not employ any African-Americans even though we were in their country. I asked her to clarify. She said she had not seen any black man in dreadlocks, spotting numerous tattoos, wearing his pants low and speaking loudly. I asked if she knew a certain IT professional named “X”. Her answer was “Oh, yes, I know X. That guy is really good at his job and helped me settle down.” When I told her that X was African American, she was shocked. She said he was not like the rappers or other African Americans she saw on TV. She was disappointed that the media only gave one side of the story (like they do everywhere else). I told her other African Americans who did professional jobs, not because there were none who did manual work, but just so she could see that this was a people that had educated and well behaved segments. They had the (very) good, the bad and the ugly just like back home.

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  4. November 26, 2012

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