De-Tangling Racism: On White Women and Black Hair

Pictures from a new exhibit by photographer Endia Beal called “Can I Touch It?” showcase several white women, all corporate execs, who agreed to get a “Black hairstyle” and then have their portrait taken.

A Cornucopia of Black Girl Hair on White Women's Bodies
A Cornucopia of Black Girl Hair on White Women’s Bodies

Apparently, this very quotidian fixation with Black women’s bodies and Black women’s hair is now the stuff of art exhibits.

This project started when Beal began permitting many of her white corporate colleagues to touch her big red ‘fro, to pull it even, while she photographed them doing it.

Over the summer, a friend and I happened upon the “You Can Touch My Hair” exhibit that occurred in Union Square.

Union Square, June 2013

Incensed at such protests and convinced that the Black woman who facilitated such a moment had no understanding of history or the ways that white folks fetishize Black women’s bodies, I was incredibly happy to see the counter protests that emerged as well.

Radha Blank

How dare the exhibit organizer put Black women on display and then grant permission for touch? Yes, there is something to be said for making it clear that permission is required, but what are we permitting?

This desire to intimately touch and engage with the body of the ‘other’ is one mark of what Sharon Patricia Holland might call “The Erotic Life of Racism.” There is certainly something undeniably erotic about inviting white men to pull a Black woman’s hair at work. I don’t use erotic in the positive sense here, mind you. But the touching of bodies is an intimate practice, touch being tethered to the erotic, like a teabag being steeped in steaming hot water. Racism happens here, too.

But I must admit, though, that I had a wholly different reaction to the Endia Beal exhibit. I laughed. I laughed heartily. I laughed the slightest bit with these women, but mostly at them.

A few of my friends were mad that these were called “Black hairstyles.” That feels a little bit culturally dishonest to me – no shade to the homies. There is a whole culture around Black hair. The first Black women millionaires made their fortunes from figuring out how to style and care for Black hair. And back then we weren’t talking about ‘fros, but perms and yes, like the white lady in these pictures, finger waves!

So though most of these styles were hot between 1985 and 1997, they are still Black girl styles.

Anyway, I get why Black women are uncomfortable. The fixation and demonization of our cultural style is a discomfiting thing. But I suspect that there is no exhibit, no version of this conversation other than one that drew a clear no-touching boundary and lambasted white folks for their continued ridiculousness that would make us comfortable.

In high school, a white classmate, someone I considered a friend, someone whom I knew came from a racist home because she told me that her dad didn’t like Black people, sidled up to me in AP English and asked to touch my hair. I let her. She touched it and remarked, “It’s soft!” I looked at her and asked, “what did you think it would feel like?” “A Brillo pad,” she replied in earnest.

This is racial absurdity. Just because Black people have used our disproportionate share of Brillo pads cleaning white people’s houses didn’t mean that our bodies magically morphed into the cleaning implements.

This is the kind of thing I wish I had said at age 17. But I simply went about my business. This kind of racism is to invoke Holland again, quotidian. Regular.

And it is the absolute absurdity of racism, the way it defies logic, that made me laugh at these photos. They are absurd in the most real way possible. They are Miley Cyrus tryin to twerk absurd. They are Robin Thicke tryin to approximate Black male swag absurd. They are GOP Obstructionists trying to play like they ain’t racists absurd.

Endia Beal hoped, I think, to cultivate a sense of white empathy and cross-cultural understanding, by facilitating opportunities for her white colleagues to experience Black hair.

These days I’m wholly uninterested in facilitating the racial understanding of any white people, other than the ones I’m paid to teach. At the same time, I recognize that there are some Black women who are more generous than I, who still see the value in breaking down racial barriers on an individual level, who recognize that racism works by facilitating white cultural ignorance of Black difference in such a way that Black difference becomes objectionable.

That we still live in a world where making Blackness less objectionable to White people is a part of anti-racist work should make clear how much we are not past or post race. And we know that many corporations have instituted policies banning Black hairstyles like braids. Hell, this summer taught us that even in Black communities, these kinds of policies surface and do harm in an attempt to make Black folks more respectable. Combing through these tangled webs of whiteness interwoven as it is with our own pain and internalized pathology is difficult shit. And ain’t nobody invented a detangling conditioner powerful enough for this.

So I can acknowledge that there is potentially a place for this work, though I won’t be the one to do it. And I can acknowledge that the work of detangling requires a wide tooth comb. In fact, as my hair goes, I’ve tossed out fine tooth combs altogether.

A wide-tooth comb allows us to attend to the subversiveness here.

And there is a subversiveness to these photos because they invert the gaze, making white women the object of ridicule or more politely put, the objects of cultural wonder. Now certainly one could argue that it is still Black hair being ridiculed, that is the black hair which is out of place here, not the white women.  These photos certainly don’t invite Black girl presence, and as such they do reinscribe existing power structures.

I buy that argument. Turns out fine-tooth combs do have their place. Subversiveness is not inherently progressive. Political acts have limits. But this doesn’t read to me as a complete failure.

Another photographer in Philadelphia attempted a similar kind of project by asking to photograph men who harassed her on the streets. She captured their shame, defiance, reluctance, vulnerability – humanity – even as she called them out for their behavior.

The question for us is whether these attempts to subvert and reframe the white corporate gaze and the black male street gaze (not that these are equivalent, mind you) on our terms is powerful at any level? Even if these kinds of strategies don’t undo structural racism, do they potentially improve the quality of life in our immediate environs – the places where we work, the places where we live and shop? Do these incremental goals matter in the fight against racism?

We struggle with these questions daily. But sometimes it’s nice to able to laugh and keep it moving. Oh and to street harassers and white folks who need to know: Look, But Don’t Touch.


And you are invited to sound off about the racial politics of hair, inverting the gaze, street harassment or anything else you need to say in the comments section.

208 thoughts on “De-Tangling Racism: On White Women and Black Hair

  1. There is a scene in Black Venus/Vénus noire (2010) when the white audience is encouraged to touch the hair and body of Sarah (Saartje) Baartman. Sarah is being restrained by a chain attached to her neck. She is made to get down on all fours so that people can ride her… like an animal. In another scene, a group of scientists attempt to remove Sarah’s loincloth to inspect her “apron”. One of the scientists grabs at it and she grabs his balls. Of course, this did not bode well for her. I smiled, nonetheless. This is why anyone (white or black) who is not my stylist tries to touch me or my hair gets the cold shoulder or worse. Stay out of my personal space, thanks.

    1. Umm…. What I hate the most is black actresses and actors willingly disgracing and humiliating our race and themselves by partaking in these demeaning roles. People will do anything for a buck, even if that means dishonoring their people by portraying such degrading character’s in white people’s movies…. What was that latest movie that just came out? With the black men being butlers and servants to white people in a house? I saw it in a preview and it made me mad. What made me madder was that blacks went and watched the damn movie and didn’t see what was wrong with it. African people are about our pride. What pride do you have participating in a film that makes a mockery of, and degrades your people, dishonors your people? What pride is that?

      That damned woman who participated in that movie, and any black who participates in media that portrays us negatively, makes a mockery of us, humiliates us, dishonors us, is no brother of mine.

    2. Want to know how and why black face came about? It’s not that people didn’t want to hire blacks in films and rather portray them themselves…. It’s because not one damn african man back then would DEAR humiliate himself the way those white directors wanted him to humiliate himself in a film for millions to see… So whites had to dress up as and wear their make up to portray blacks the way they wanted blacks to be foolishly portrayed in media, because they couldn’t find a black person with enough lack of pride to play these demeaning and embarrassing roles themselves.

      What happened to that pride? Now you have black people WILLING participating in these kinds of films. I will make a mockery of my own people so long as I am getting paid. I will dishonor my people so long as someone throws me a bill. I will participate in humiliating and stereotypical roles in movies and television so long as someone pays me. What the hell happened to pride? When and why did that suddenly get tossed out of the window.

      Oh but it’s not just blacks dishonoring themselves, and humiliating themselves… Have you seen those asians on YouTube the make jokes of asian stereotypes and even make up a fake asian accent? What’s that one boy’s name? Peter Chao? Im not even asian and this damn boy and every asian I see with a fake asian accent humiliating their race like that pisses me off. Where the fuck your pride? Whites make fun of you for something, and you retaliate by humilating yourself? I know this one asian guy who fakes an asian accent, he even goes so far as to intentionally misspell words with an “R” where and “”L” is suppose to be. Like spelling “black” with an r “Brack”…. It pisses me off and I finally told him off about his lack of pride. I told him “You think that mess is cute to poke fun at asian accents and you yourself are asian? That is not cute”.

      I swear to god– us brown people need to get it together and regain our pride. We also need to start honoring ourselves by portraying ourselves positively in american media where we are constantly humiliated.

    3. And trust me… White people are not the issue here when it comes to these humiliating images. It’s OUR fault for participating in them. If you don’t participate in them, then they won’t have a film. As simple as that…. But noooo…. Anything for a buck right?

    4. Then on top of that– and I swear I am done after this message– Don’t even get me started on white people who participate in movies that have an ass load of racist propaganda and portrays whites as racist, or portrays another race poorly. Where the hell is YOUR pride? Where the hell is white american pride? If you know that it’s a stereotype that you are racist, then why would you participate in a film that portrays you as such? Or a film that negatively portrays another group of people? If I was white, I wouldn’t be participating in any film that portrayed me as a racist, or humiliated another group of people. But White Americans don’t seem to have any damn pride either. media tells you to do this and you do it, not caring how bad it makes your people look. Where is your pride? huh? You don’t care how that film confirms stereotypes about white people, so long as they pay you, you are willing to play the part? I can go on about blacks and Asians, us brown people, because we know all too well about how our own people will humiliate the rest of us on television. But i don’t think whites realize how these damn actors are making them look in the media. Understand that pride isn’t arrogance, pride is not wanting to further sully your image and to honor yourself, it’s love yourself and protect your image– and I don’t see whites in the media honoring themselves at all if they confirm stereotypes about themselves by playing stereotypical roles, or participating films that negatively portray others. You REALLY need to work on your pride. White people need to GET PRIDE enough to not want to participate in films like this that make them look bad.

  2. As a Black woman who is also the mother of 2 daughters, I have taught them early on that their skin and hair is not an exhibit to be poked and prodded by others, especially people with a narrow definition of humanity that doesn’t seem to include us. They love and appreciate their natural hair and have been told to discount the naysayers and keep it moving, which is what I also live by as an adult.

  3. AND, how about white people (men included) refrain from having a very loud dialogue about “how intriguing / unusual / amazing” my hair is in the company of others. Actually, my hair is rather typical, casual, and does no circus tricks. How about a compliment in the same tone and brevity you do towards others, ie, “nice hair” “nice style” “nice color” ; or for younger, hipper hair aficionados, ie, “that hair is whipped” “oh you did that” “go miss thang.”

    And please, white people, explain to me why you think it is appropriate to reach out and touch my hair without permission OR to even ask my grown woman self if you can touch it? I mean it and don’t mind being called mean when I reel in disgust and frown being appalled by your lack of boundaries. Helping you keep them, I mean it, “you hand touch my hair, my palm touches your cheek — firmly.” One assault deserves another. Just helping you learn, just helping you learn. I am a good humanitarian like that; and I do not suffer fools for long.

    1. truly amazes me how shit like this becomes black vs. white. how about ignorant people stop being rude and touching your hair? i’m white and i would never do something like that to another person. really don’t appreciate an argument that spins hate in circles…

      1. “So it’s isn’t necessary to shout “NOT ALL” whenever we have these discussions. We know “not all.” But we’re also aware that even though “not all,” these systems remain entrenched, vicious, overwhelming, and primary.”
        She’s not calling you out if you aren’t the one who does it. She’s calling out our fellow white folks who unquestioningly live the script of white supremacy.

      2. That’s very obtuse. Can you imagine a white person goign up and touching anotehr white person’s hair, or the same with a black person? No-one is saying all white people are this way – get less sensitive. What she’s saying is that it is a n issue of race, which it obviously is. Yes it comes down to ‘ignorant people’ but if you neglect to mention it is about cross-cultural misunderstanding, then you’re obscuring the very problem you’re trying to fix. No offence, but you need to look past your white privelige.

      3. This article is not about you and your specific circle of friends. Perhaps, they’re all enlightened individuals with a greater sense of body bouncy and respect for others. The point is that’s highly atypical and that MANY black women have the experience if becoming an OBJECT of curiosity and/or desire, as a result of ignorance stemming primarily from women who are white. It’s a bit like you’re asking why does that victim keep talking about the people harnessing her, when everybody gets harrased now and then? It’s just self-explanatory and obvious.

      4. You are white so I guess you cannot understand. It is white people that want to touch black hair as if we are pets which we are not. The article does not spin hate. Get over yourself.

    2. Okay, I have a question. I don’t know if I count as an adult by your standards, but I’m 22 and mixed race -my hair is not super exciting and I grew up in a pretty darn white neighborhood and didn’t really have any black friends until college. When my friend got some really cool looking dreads I asked if she’d mind me touching them. She didn’t mind, I touched briefly, and it seemed fine.

      Is it alright to ask a friend? I mean I don’t think I’d ever ask someone I didn’t know well, that seems pretty rude. But if it’s someone you’re friendly with, is it so bad to ask?

      Sorry if I’m coming across as rude, I’m just curious.

      1. would you ask to touch a white person’s dreads? how are a black person’s dreads any different? is curiosity a greater sin than ignorance?

      2. I think I would ask, because I’m very curious as I’ve never had them and basically don’t know very many people who have. I’m literally one of three girls in my class of 300 who didn’t straighten their hair for their senior photo, if that gives you any indication of where I’m coming from.
        But again, I’d never ask someone I didn’t know, and I certainly am not gonna go grabbing people’s hair. I think there’s a big line between what some women are describing on here – affectionate exploration of this sort of thing as children, or interactions between people who already have a relationship, and people grabbing other people’s hair because they think that have a right to.

        Does it matter that I’m not white? I don’t know.

        I would think that respectful curiosity would indeed be far less of a sin than ignorance. Frankly, in terms of race relations, I think ignorance is one of the worst sins.

    3. So you’re telling me that you’ve never had a black man or woman reach out and touch your hair without permission? I’m not saying that would be socially appropriate either, but why this focus on WHITE people as somehow different from black?

      I’m white and I don’t touch random people’s hair…but when I have my curly lower-back-length reddish brown hair down, old ladies love to stroke it and co-workers have often copped a feel. I’m germ-phobic so I do not like the touch…yet I do not blame them or shame them. They’re touching it because they’re drawn to it – because it is different than their own short/straight/blond etc. hair – because it is beautiful.

      I do not presume to place myself in your shoes and assume that our experiences are alike…however, less racism on your part would be appreciated.

      1. BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. First of all, look up the definition for “racism”. Second, yeah, it’s different when black people touch my hair from when white people do it. I hate it when *either* happens but it’s different in the same way that it’s different when a female stranger on the street tells me I look super cute and wants to know where my dress is from versus when a male stranger tells me “lookin’ good!”. In the latter, there’s a sense of entitlement and I can’t help but feel the weight of the entire history of female objectification on my shoulders. Same thing when white people touch my hair or ask to touch it. There’s a sense of entitlement and I can’t help but feel the weight of the entire history of black subjugation on my shoulders.

      2. “Less racism on your part would be appreciated” – comments like that make the rest of us white people look bad. When old ladies touch your hair it is objectifying you, turning you into an object that they feel they have a right to handle. When white people do the same objectification to black people it has centuries of abuse and discrimination entangled with it because of the history of the power dynamic. It really is not the same thing at all.

      3. yes, I’ve had black people touch my hair or other parts without permission. usually they were dudes trying to hit on me who had no sense of boundaries. I agree with the poster who complained about arguments that spin hate in circles. accusing someone of having white privilege does nothing to make it okay to try to perpetuate racial division and hate based on skin color. some of us just want all of us to get to know and appreciate each other for our differences. curiosity can be a good thing, let’s all learn about each other and learn how people of different cultural backgrounds can be friends. i love diversity. i would never touch someone as if i just had the right though. i don’t know the people who would. but i know somewhere there are white people so attrocious that I have to go through my life with the stain of having the same color skin as them. People hate me for looking white, even though my ancestors were also oppressed by white people. who my ancestors are shouldn’t matter anyway. this is the present, we have to make it our own by learning to look past this shit.
        If a black guy raped me, I would not go on to talk as if all black men were rapists. THAT would be racist and untrue. RAPISTS are rapists, and it has nothing to do with skin color.. You can still address the cultural issues without being a hypocrite. But you would have to think more carefully about how to accurately put these things into words. And you would have to stop feeling anger at petty things like someone wanting to learn more about you because you are different from them. Please try to be a little more conscious about these things. Please stop promoting cultural divides and skin based hatred. Please don’t behave in a way that you would find unacceptable if the tables were flipped. Thanks.

      4. SO elitist and entitled that it’s sad. Typically reactionary as well. Just because you haven’t personally experienced a particular set of circumstances doesn’t mean they fail to exist for others.

      5. My husband, who is biracial, has long dreads that reach halfway down his back. I am sure, in our ten years together, that I have personally witnessed hundreds of people touching his hair, with or without permission. The most frequent hair touching occurred when we lived in a remoter region of China. Because Chinese culture has a less defined notion of “personal space” and because most people had never seen a non-Chinese person before, I would conclude that much of this touching comes from uninhibited curiosity. While certainly racially motivated, because the region is nearly 100% Han Chinese, I cannot comfortably attribute the touching to historically institutionalized tradition of objectifying of Black bodies. So, do these cultural and historical differences make these acts of touching different from those that occur here in the US? Does motive even matter? And if it does, how are are people formulating these boundaries about what is socially permissible? What kind of touching (or even asking) restraint should we expect from family? (His family–Black, White and mixed alike–often come up and start playing with his hair.) From friends? From co-workers, acquaintances, strangers, or immigrants with different cultural understandings?

      6. well of course you ask permission, thats an assumption so basic it took me this long to figure out that that was what we are arguing about. thats stupid obvious.
        i just wish we could have an open and relaxed dialogue that feels just a little bit less like tapdancing in a minefield. i just dont understand whats so hard about that.

      7. For heaven’s sake. Some people wanting to touch your long hair is NOT the same thing as the fetishistic, racist fixation white people have with black women’s bodies and hair!

    4. This sounds so stupid that you believe you’re actually “teaching” someone something. You’ve given no instances in which someone has actually done this to you and tried to touch your hair, so your desperation to relate and anger seemingly therein makes you lose any credibility, and you sound just as racist as the white folk being ignorantly portrayed..

    5. I’m curious – how often does this happen to you? Like how often do people either ask to touch your hair, or just touch it?
      I find it super weird that all of these people are writing as if this happens on a large scale. That’s so bizarre. I don’t know where all these hair-touching people are coming from.

      1. I live in a nearly all white community, and this happens to me constantly! I will be in the grocery store, at work, doesn’t seem to matter they just come up and touch my hair… I have kind of become resigned to it, and I try to use it as an opportunity to teach. A lot of times Its just ignorance on an epic scale.

    6. I’m white and have a theory, though I don’t know if I’m the best person to attempt this. I’m personally a shy introvert with a personal bubble. If you’re not family or a close friend I -don’t- want you touching me and project that on to other people, so I don’t touch without permission or unless there’s an established relationship that allows for hugs, etc.

      I suspect it’s entitlement though. 😉 I’ve had my hair cut to where it fell into my face and obscured one eye entirely. This drove people batty. Some would ask first, but others would reach over and just move my bangs without permission. My suspicion is that it’s that entitlement where they assume they can touch a woman x2 and mixed with racism for even more fun times. Just a theory.

      I totally support you defending your personal space. No one, no one should be touching you without permission. It’s a basic respect thing human beings should have for each other and it’s stupid that we still have to discuss this.

  4. “Do these incremental goals matter in the fight against racism”? The fact is that most of the people that one would want to benefit from this act of subversive art will probably not see it or understand the purpose if they do. Yet, protest art also creates an important alternative narrative that does disrupt or bring into question commonplace everyday assumptions, and provides opportunities for dialogues such as the ones we are having here. These portrayals are useful for study and classroom engagement. Importantly they reverse the gaze and I believe put whiteness on blast rather than blackness. I believe it affirms our hair culture more than it reinforces white curiosity. Finally, it creates a visual record that juxtaposes stereotypes about class, status, and hair style choices. Remember these are corporate women, not just everyday girls on the block. This kind of work is important over the long run, and it is clearly the artist’s way of saying what researchers do in 1000 words or more.

  5. considering that black people reach out and touch my hair and that I have asked(or not asked) to touch white peoples hair I’m not sure how strongly to feel about this “invasion”. Quite honestly depending on the style my hair could be hard as a rock or baby soft, I don’t think its bizarre to wonder. More importantly in regard to white women who have hoards of commercials dedicated to being touchable soft I think there is a cultural difference in this regard. As a black man I actually feel safer touching a strange white woman’s hair than a well known black woman’s. There is an element of self issues when you contemplate this comparison. How thin of a line is there between legitimate issues of personal space and shame about what your hair is?

    1. Agreed. I do not feel any more “comfortable” with black women reaching out and touching mine or my children’s hair than I do white women. I don’t want anyoneI don’t know touching me. There is no special “but it’s US” black woman solidarity at play here. I did not go to the black woman convention where we all met up and decided “well it’s ok if WE do it but not them” and “we have to agree to all be offended together, if you’re not offended with us we will call you an Uncle Tom and ostracize you.”
      I do not enjoy the minutes long interrogations from other black women about my background “Are you mixed? Well you must be mixed with something. Why do you talk like that? Where did you grow up? Where did your parents grow up?”

      Hair touching and the invasive assumptive entitlement examine by these art pieces and protests is not simply about race. It’s also about lack of respect for boundaries in general. It’s a human problem, not a white people problem. I have encountered considerably worse (and more entitled b/c it’s “sista to sista’) from my own people.

      We need to stop with the emotional/racial anaphylaxis over hair – “good” “bad” “mixed” “white” “black” “nappy” etc etc.

  6. I was at the You Can Touch My Hair exhibit in Union Sq. this past summer. I am a white woman and one of the exhibitors who was “pro-touch” explained this to me, “It is about demystifying black hair. It’s just hair. If we [meaning black women] show that it’s just like anyone’s hair, then it won’t be such a big deal.”
    I did not participate in touching anyone’s hair because the whole thing felt like a petting zoo–women, especially women of color, shouldn’t have to “exhibit” their hair to “Demystify” it. Nobody touches my “caucizoid” hair on the train without asking, nobody disrespects my humanity enough to essentialize it down to my hair.
    It was great to see the counter-protesters there who were giving voice to racial element of the “exhibit.” One lady who was interviewed said, “First we say it’s fine to touch our hair, then we will have to say it’s fine to touch our bodies.”
    So powerfully said.

    1. I am a cosmetologist. When I first started doing hair, at least once a week I had an african american woman sit in my chair and ask me if I knew how to do her hair. Then she would tell me that I didn’t know how to do her hair. Then she would INSIST that I did not know how to do her hair because how could I possibly know since I am white. The whole time I did her hair there would be mountains of attitude about me not knowing how to do her hair. Well I would do her hair and she would be VERY VERY VERY suprised that she liked it. So you know who has a predominantly african american clientele now? Me. And do you know why? Because I grew up in a house surrounded by african american women. I grew up doing their hair and playing with it like I did my own. I think that part of the difference in touching ethnic vs. european hair is many of my clients who come get their hair shampooed and styled once a week will tell me that they don’t want their style ruined so they don’t like people touching it and messing it up where as I can just throw a few hot rollers in my hair and fix whatever is messed up by curious fingers. People shouldn’t have others touch their hair without permission but I think most people ARE curious about the different textures. If you don’t know any better you should be educated. I believe there is truth to demystifying african american hair through touch. Eliminate the power of the taboo. Educate people. Once they realize its just hair that is what it will become to them, hair. Don’t do anything that you are uncomfortable with or violates your personal principles. But if you are comfortable letting people touch your hair WITH PERMISSION I think you are educating.

  7. If you’re going to speak out against racism, you might not want to appear racist yourself, “They are Robin Thicke tryin to approximate Black male swag absurd.” Your quote.

  8. I see Endia’s work not as mockery of black hairstyles, but as mockery of those who would mock, idealize, mystify, or otherwise identify said hairs as a trait belonging to some “other” group: ie poking at the intentional or unintentional racists. I’m surprised she didn’t include a weave in her photo set, but that definitely falls in the “hell no you can’t touch it!” category.

    I’m sure the topic hits close to home with black women (as it should. she’s putting a cultural vulnerability on display (not the hair itself, the reactions to the hair)), but I’m not sure how one would otherwise portray a sensitive topic and get the point across.

    The facial expressions give a lot of depth to this. Some are awkward and vulnerable (like the centered portrait), but some are downright defiant. If we focus on the main portrait, a very uncomfortable but proud woman, we can get a better sense of what she’s aiming for. To me, her facial expressions are saying “you’re making me feel awkward, please stop objectifying me”, in as polite a way as she can (hence the light smile), because I’m assuming the source of the awkwardness/vulnerability is the viewer’s interaction with/at her. however, it could be her actual discomfort with sporting the hairstyle itself (which is now on display to the viewer), or it could be both. I don’t know enough about the artist to make further projections of intent.

    How would changing the central portrait to a more defiant gaze affect the piece, and how would that make you view it differently?

    lens disclaimer: educated middle class white man (with an art background).

  9. I’m and older blk man who wears a high top fro.I was at a out door concert event with a bunch of my young latino,Afrikan and White friends. Out of no where this brand X white boy comes in the middle of our set and reaches up to put his hand in my hair. I tried to knock the fuck out of this fool. I was raised that you never let anyone touch you on the head,especially some white cracker.The very idea that in this day and age,blk girls are willing to be sport monkeys for white people is sad and insulting to all of the blk women before them.I have told white girls in the past when I had locks don’t touch me. On several occasions I told them if you touch my hair I’m gona grab your titties. You should have seen the looks on their red faces.For to long alot of us have the go along to get along atitude.Well I ain’t tryna hear that. When my oldest daughter was little I say some old white guy put his hand on her head,I slapped the dog shit out of him and told her don’t you ever let any man most especial a white man put his hand on you. Unfortuntely to offten blk folks are reagarded as fools,dangerious or just silly mindless objects. I ain’t the one.

  10. I think people are curious about people and things that are different than themselves. I don’t think it comes down to sub-conscious racism. I have tattoos, and I’m white. People grab me all the time and ask to see them. I’ve had people yank me or hold me still by the arm. While I do prefer to keep my personal space, I don’t chalk it up to anything other than innocent curiosity.

    1. Absolutely Hayley, I think it is a curiosity of what is different, and pulling racism from all of this just perpetuates (obviously) a sensitive issue unnecessarily. Some people are part all kinds of races and all kinds of hair. I once went with my long blondish straight hair to a village in PNG and the kids there had not seen such hair before- they chased me around wanting to touch it- we were a novelty and could not go far without interest, but it was the unknown. In a modern city, I would imagine this is less the case, but reading negatively into things is not gonna help, people are intrigued by the unknown..

      1. I would imagine it’s quite a privilege to be able to chalk up strangers’ invasion and assault of your person as nothing “other than innocent curiosity”, Hayley.

        Emma, how dare you reduce an issue that spotlights the entitlement White people feel about Black people’s bodies to a sensitivity issue. I’d imagine you think this conversation is “divisive” as well? Also, congratulations on being so good as to grace a village in Papua New Guinea with your “long blondish straight hair”, and for letting the poor brown children touch it.

      2. silence enables wrongs to continue. it’s interesting that the new “racism” for some is bringing up the subject. so now you’re helping racism by pointing it out. if we just keep quiet, “good feelings” could continue. note that it was silence that allow the perpetuation of sexual abuse in the catholic church for decades. as i said before, these things need to be discussed, shouted out, screamed out if necessary. but everything must be brought to the light if minimally to let those acting without malice that something is wrong. and for those who do act with racial animus, they need to be called out on their shit.

      3. @Andrea: how dare you make curiosity a sin. im not fond of being touched by strangers myself, i dont advocate that at all… but i kind of assume that holding up a sign that says “you can touch my hair” is an invitation, but thats the kind of twisted racism i subscribe to.
        if i was a child seeing long, straight, blonde hair for the first time i would would want to touch it too. I AM MORE AFRAID OF ASKING TO TOUCH A BLACK PERSONS HAIR THAN I AM OF ASKING TO TOUCH A WHITE PERSONS HAIR. is that what you want? ignorance reinforced with fear? how is white women wearing black hairstyles in the spirit of multiculturalism more of an abomination than black women wearing white hairstyles in order to conform to western standards of beauty?

    1. You mean the one threatening violence? Good to know. Seems like a really classy lady, threatening to punch people in the face.

  11. I don’t give a crap what colour a person is – they should be taught VALUES and not encroach on another person’s space. WTF is it with people wanting to touch my hair? I have been slapping people the fuck out of my way for as long as I can remember. Nasty freaks.

      1. shit, you’re trying to be facetious with your stupid questions. who the hell posting here is holding a damn sign asking to be touched? the above experiment is limited to those women. are you f*cking kidding?

    1. I don’t want to touch your hair. Gross. No thanks. Sorry, hun, you’re not the center of the universe just people a couple people were curious about the texture of your hair. You say you have values, yet you type this: ” I have been slapping people the fuck out of my way for as long as I can remember. Nasty freaks.” You seem like trash to me. Acquire some class dear. Learn how to be a lady and not speak like a sailor.

  12. I’m a white girl and people try to touch my hair all the time too. I don’t like it either. I think it is about keeping your personal space and men “sexualizing” women with attracting features, not racism.

    1. I think if someone is actually writing a piece on this topic, it’s obviously a common occurrence and an issue for black women. I’ve *almost* done this myself – *so* glad I didn’t. It IS rude -and intrusive. I can see how it can be racist, too. Would I ask any other woman the same question? Probably not.. I really appreciate this article.. For a culture that was once devastated by the atrocities of slavery for 300 years, and that *still* has to deal with racism, what seems simple (to a white person without this history) is very different for a person of color. I think as white people we have to learn how to shut up and listen -and to remember that we have very different histories. OK, shutting up now.

      1. OMG, the implicit “racism” in “being more afraid to asking to touch a black girl’s hair than a white girl’s”? such a stupid question. why the HELL do you need to touch anybody?!! And if you think that is anyway racist to not ask to touch a stranger, then you need to take a class on racism in America. and yes, you have a right to say no when someone wants to touch your buzzcut. jeez!

      2. Sharon- The point is that black women can be scary. I wouldn’t dare approach one, let alone ask about their hair. I might get beat up. The protester in the picture above proves my point. She threatens violence if you’re curious about her hair. I’ve had plenty of people touch my hair and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. You really have issues if you’re obsessed with this nonsense. Is this how black women want to be perceived? As violent and highly-defensive? How will we ever bring down the walls of racism if people are too afraid to approach you? Not all racism is white people’s fault. I’ve seen some pretty racist comments about white people in the article and the comments here. Hypocrisy at it’s finest. Keep on threatening people with violence and see if that earns you respect. Not everything is racial. Touching hair can be cultural. You obviously don’t spend too much time with other cultures if you think this is a white-black thing exclusively.

      3. Lola. While we are clearly busy dishing out cosmo advice: get some class for yourself. Grow some manners and respect for other people. Stop using words you don’t understand, like ‘cultural’. Someone said NO you cannot touch me. Do you understand English at all? You are being a huge embarassment to yourself.

        Check. Your. Privilege.

      4. i dont NEED to touch anyone, that isnt the point i was trying to make at all. its the fear, and the sowing of the seeds of fear. and what it really means when differences in social behavior pivot on race and race alone.

  13. I’m not sure how I feel about this, I am a white female so I don’t have the same experiences as a black women would. But when I lived in Asia people frequently wanted to touch my light brown wavy hair and did so. The same also happens to me now living in Uganda, men/women and children frequently touch and ask questions about my hair and my skin. While I sometimes find it uncomforable it depends on the situation, children especially do not ask permission and just touch away. It is also less uncomfortable when it is other women. I tend assume people are curious about my hair/skin because it is different from what they are used to. So I’m not sure how is it different for white people to have questions/touch black peoples hair. I would love a serious answer.

    1. I’m a white female too, and I honestly think that it’s just curiosity. Certain types of hair are very different from my own, and sometimes I’m just curious as to what it would feel like! I just don’t know! It looks very different, would it feel very different? I obviously don’t just go around touching people’s hair, but for me I’ve always been quietly curious, so when I have a good friend who is of a different race then me, I may ask to touch their hair and they could absolutely feel free to touch mine. I don’t think that curiosity is the problem, it’s the way that people’s curiosity is being satisfied that is – by touching hair rudely.

      1. I think it’s less that people are curious about the hair (and, by extension, a culture attached to the hair), and more that there is an obvious history of unequal race relations that many people disregard between the white folks in this country and Africans or African Americans. Why are “black hairstyles” still considered a novelty? These styles have developed and evolved alongside “white hairstyles”, and yet they’re still considered exotic. The problem is not that they’re thought-provoking, but that they’re not considered to have a place in the norm. I think it’s one thing to visit a country in which you are the clear outsider, the cultural minority (as in your example of Uganda, as well as my own experience as a white woman in India), and another thing to live side by side with these women and still treat them as outsiders. Given the long history in the United States of immigration, slavery, civil rights, etc., it is downright disrespectful to treat black women as a novelty.

      2. I’m also white, and based on some reading I’ve been doing (and PoC, please feel free to correct this) the discomfort with being touched comes from a long history in the U.S of white people feeling entitled to black people’s bodies. Whether it was through brutal sale and slavery, rape, minstrelsy, or subjecting them to medical experiments, the normalcy of using black people’s bodies for their own purposes became part of the white consciousness in America. Now we have white pop stars appropriating black style and black back-up dancers to boost their own image, meanwhile those viewed as “too black” are shunned. Sadly, the black body continues to be a commodity for some. People in foreign countries are curious about us (I too experienced it, children followed my blonde hair everywhere in Jamaica) because we’re a rarity, exotic. As white people we have the luxury of never having been oppressed in these countries (generally speaking-a Jew in Germany would obviously feel differently), so the notion of people being interested in us simply for being white is a flattering novelty without a cultural precedent of oppression and genocide. So when a strange person asks (or doesn’t ask) to touch a black person’s hair, it sends the message of “I’m white and I can do whatever I want,” regardless of the individual’s intentions. So although we may be very, very curious (I admit I often am myself), we have to act mindfully and be considerate of how our behavior will be perceived. If a good friend is comfortable with you, that’s one thing, otherwise it’s best to just smile and say “I like your hair.”

  14. i guess i’m horrible white person because i’m fascinated by black or asian people’s hair 😉 i don’t know, it looks so nice and different from my own. of course i would never ask a stranger if i can touch it, i find it inappropriate. i have red hair, and where i live (poland) prejudice against redheads is common. so i would rather be an object of silly curiosity than face prejudice or be described as ugly on account of hair color.

  15. Well, it all depends on how you look at things.

    I’m a white woman and I never came into close contact with a black person until I was 12 yo; not my fault. I met this girl in middle school who was from Cote d’Ivoire. She was so beautiful and her skin was so gorgeous, it almost glowed (nope, not a lesbian). Years later I had a black colleague that, as soon as he knew I had never touched a black person’s hair, let me probe it. I was delighted by the softness of his hair.

    May be black people should interpret other races attitude as just plain admiration and envy as in my particular case. Come on, can you believe this skin that hardly ages!

    My final comment is that I enjoyed Endia Beal’s photos and they made me think. I, myself, have an unruly curly hair and I have always refused to tame it according to standards!

  16. ‘many corporations have instituted policies banning Black hairstyles like braids.’ Does this really happen? Hard to imagine it in the UK.

  17. When I worked in a nursery I watched all the children stroke and play with each other’s hair. A little black girl asked if she could feel my hair and I let her, she said my hair was like a river and her’s was like a cloud.My daughter is of French + Irish from me and Persian Heritage from her daddy, she used to comment a lot about my “blue berry eyes” and her “chocolate moon eyes” Her friend Scarlet has a huge afro and she likes to squeeze it affectionately and brush her hair and “make it fluffy like candyfloss” Her friend in turn likes to stroke my daughter’s hair and “pretend she is a cat as her hair is so smooth” all this is done with love and playfulness, with permission and respect for boundaries. Neither of them would go up to a stranger and ask to touch them. Human beings are naturally curious creatures. Whilst I can understand frustration in a setting like a work place and from an adult woman’s point of view I think it is very defensive and hostile to be so angry about it and tell your kids not to let anyone touch their hair. It can be a very affectionate thing to experience and I have seen many kids bond in this way.. I remember being a child and meeting my first black friend, my reaction after a few times of playing together was to ask to feel her hair, perhaps this was tactless but it only came from curiosity and she ended up getting her mum to teach me to help wash and braid her hair as she found it difficult to do on her own. It became a fun thing that we would do at her house together. I kept that knowledge and in recent years when a little girl came to stay over when they were 4 they shared a bath and I sent her home with coconut oil and little braids in her hair and her mum was over the moon that her daughter had asked me to do it and that I had done a good job and been careful and gentle with her daughter’s hair. If I never asked to touch my friend’s hair I never would have known how to care for my daughter’s friend’s hair after a muddy rainy time in the park. I can understand why some people may be offended by rudeness or other’s thinking they have the right to invade into your space but it really depends on the context and the level of respect and sensitivity shown. I will continue to squeeze my friend’s afro and call her sponge head and she will probably continue to call me her magic leprechaun, it may be wrong but it feels so right and it’s been going on about 19 years now.

    1. Thank you for your beautiful, loving response. That is exactly how I feel as well. We can choose to view any occurrence as a divisive or a connecting event. I choose to view people as trying to connect. And curiosity is a key part of understanding. When genuine kindness is involved on both sides, rude behaviour is not possible.

    2. So teaching children to understand their personal boundaries and not allow random people the right to touch them and/or treat them like a zoo exhibit is ‘hostile’? WOW.

      1. Good god, woman. You just don’t get it. Touching is very human. My friends touched my hair as a child and I touched their’s. You are so defensive that you miss the very human and cultural aspect of touching another human’s hair. I feel sorry for you.

      2. PLEASE keep your pity Lola, save it for the person who wasn’t taught to respect the space and personage of others because they will get a ‘tutorial’ that WON’T be pleasant. Even children need to learn that curiosity doesn’t warrant rudeness and disrespect and unless they’re toddlers, not everyone has the patience for their lack of knowledge.

  18. This whole thing is rather trifling. It seems that wIth the magic of women/gender/racial studies “reasoning” anyone can take any interaction between “standard” and “other” and turn it into racism, sexism, and hatred for non-heterosexuals. This project was not intended to offend you, and you resort to some serious intellectual yoga in order to make it suit your indignation.

  19. I think this is more of a US phenomena. I do not know of anyone at all who would ask to touch anyone’s hair. Tbh I find the whole concept quite bizarre and that otherwise sensible adults would think this invasion of personal space is acceptable. It may be that because I’m white I have never observed this behaviour but my Black and Asian friends have never raised this as an issue they have faced. Personally I think we in the UK get over the hair touching after about the age of six perhaps because our communities are more integrated, Certainly I grew up in an area with communities from all around the globe with visible racial tension diminishing significantly in the last 30 years. Another indicator of this is that there is much less hostility toward cross cultural marriage in the UK. It is hard to be mystified about other cultures or types of human when you live next door to each other, share each other’s food, when your children attend the same nurseries and your sister/brother/aunt/uncle is mixed race.

  20. This goes both ways. Being one of the few white girls on a mainly African American basketball team in highschool there were many times when teammates randomly reached out to pet my hair. I didn’t mind. When things are different than what you’re used to you can’t help but have curiosity about it.

  21. I think you have amazing points and insight. But I don’t agree with your assessment of your classmate in high school. I am a minority and I was always asked when I was younger about certain things about my appearance and my culture. It is a very fuzzy line where to distinguish between inquisitiveness and sub-conscious racism. I do not think this standard should be held to minors that are still learning about the world. To adults, yes. Minors, no.

  22. I am a white woman. The whole thought, “Oh, look, a black woman! I’ve never seen one before! Maybe she’ll let me touch her hair! That would be a great way to break down cultural barriers!” is absurdly racist in itself. If we (white women) assume that requesting to feel a “different” type of hair is an acceptable mode of cross-cultural exchange, then why aren’t we offering our own hair to be felt? Because we are also making the assumption that white hair is “normal”. Personally, I never really had the urge to touch a stranger’s hair, with or without their permission (except maybe people in hair product commercials). But, then again, I had friends of African heritage when I was a child, and little girls play with each other’s hair. So maybe that childhood experience relieved my curiosity. That sort brings me to what bothers me about the fascination that white women have with black women’s hair. Its the implication that it is something alien. That we can view black women with such alienation indicates just how rare interracial childhood friendships really are and how much racism is still entrenched in our society. I agree with the idea of demystifying the “other” but I am also disappointed that this demystification isn’t happening through the natural evolution of actual relationships.

    1. I’m a white woman with unusual hair. I have always lived in mostly-white areas. White people have asked to touch my hair. They have gone ahead and touched it without asking. I assume that only because white people are assumed to have personal boundaries and the assumed privilege not to be touched by strangers has it been thankfully infrequent. Because having my hair touched by strangers creeps the heck out of me. It’s not just an artificial or neutral construct they are touching or asking to touch, it’s me that they’re touching.

  23. I am a white male with straight hair. Back in 1973, when I first taught at a public high school where 85% of the student population was Black, many kids did touch my hair–it was longer and, at some point, touched my shoulders. The kids were curious. Several offered to braid my hair and tried one afternoon, but it just wouldn’t work out right. Some of my white male students with very curly hair did wear ‘fros because it worked with the texture of their hair . Some of the Black girls would plat the boys’ hair in a prep fashion. I don’t think you should just go up to someone and start touching him or her. There is such diversity, beauty and individuality in the human form. Polite, respectful and honest conversations between people help us understand each other. I enjoyed reading the article and all the various comments.

  24. I’m a white teenage girl and I have to say that I touch -everyone’s- hair, with permission. It’s just fascinating. So to make this a fully racial thing is weird to me. I mean, to some people I’m sure it is, and I have asked to touch the hair of a black friend before, but I also ask my blonde, brunette, red head, etc. friends. So if someone asks to touch your hair, don’t automatically assume it’s a race issue until you’re sure. And feel free to say no either way.

  25. As a white girl I find the idea of this exhibit cool. Yes there is a certain element of objectifying black women and I certainly see where some people are upset but this is really just another dialogue we don’t get to have in everyday life. I know black girls, latino girls, Asians who have asked what my hair feels like. Touching someone’s head is intimate and there really aren’t a lot of opportunities to just touch someone’s hair. When was the last time you did your girlfriends’ hair? That’s about the only time you get to reach out and feel what it’s like so if you don’t know anyone of a different race well enough to help her get dressed up then you never know what her hair feels like.

  26. So long as everyone continues to cling to the archaic idea of race, there will be racism. Demonizing any group based solely on their skin color is ignorant and hateful. I’m a white guy. I can’t help that. Hell, I’ve searched my family tree for any “color” in the form of non-European heritage and come up empty.
    I’m sure there are some people who are racist and disrespectful, etc; but you’ve now basically said it’s my kind (white people, most of which are not “my kind” culturally) against your kind (black people, who may or may not be “your kind” culturally).
    I do my damnedest not to be racist or pass on racist ideas or behaviors, but honestly it’s frustrating and hurtful when every conversation about racism has a tendency to end up with “You white people are bad/wrong/messed up/the enemy/etc.”
    If I ever asked to touch a woman of colors hair, it would be a friend, and it wouldn’t be because I’m racist or erotically fascinated as a white male. It would be because she is different than me like I am different than all of my friends and I’m curious as to what all is different. I would equally ask a white person with frizzy hair or a mohawk, assuming they too were my friend and personal boundaries permitted.
    Is my dog racist if he sniffs one of my black friends? He sniffs everyone because he’s curious and trying to understand who/what is in front of him. Curiosity is natural. Obviously being curious about others respectful is necessary, but most of this sounded like if I’m curious about someone, I must be some prejudice asshole.

  27. I was the only white girl in my grade for most of my life, until high school. The black girls in my school used to sit behind me in class and play with my “white girl hair” all day. Sometimes people at school would, indeed, ask to touch it. I had long, blonde hair that, often times, they did up in I guess what you’d call “black styles”. They also asked questions about my hair: why is it so limp, why doesn’t it curl, does my scalp get burned, etc. I didn’t find it offensive. I know there is a power dynamic at play here, I’m just saying that I experienced being the object of curiosity as a young white girl, and this “cultural wonder” can go both ways. That said, I’d never stop a random stranger on the street and ask to touch her hair, that’s just weird. I do think that most people who do that probably think it’s a compliment, however misguided they are. Personally, I have complimented a number of black women on their hairstyles. I’ve complimented an equal number of white, latino, and asian women as well. I get the social critique going on here, I just had a totally different experience, personally.

  28. … I should add to my earlier comment that I also got a lot of insults about my hair. I was told I was pale, called “Casper”, vanilla, etc. The worst was the day that the word “towhead” was the vocab word for the day. I then got called toe-head, foot head, and a variety of other clever foot-themed names for about a month. Just saying, racism and fetishism of “the other” goes both ways.

    1. True, but the difference is that we white folks don’t have a history of racism. And slavery. White people OWNED black peoples very bodies! We have to remember these atrocities.. And just because it didn’t happen yesterday (tho how many black people encountered racism yesterday -a lot, I’m sure) doesn’t mean that the effects have disappeared.. These things reverberate through generations.. I just don’t understand how people can block out 300 years.. Do we do the same around Jewish people and their history? No -I think they are allowed to have their feelings about the Holocaust.. Somehow black people aren’t – it’s just horrible. Do I have white guilt? Yes, probably.. I also hope it’s awareness and plain old simple compassion for my fellow humans.

  29. What if, heaven forbid, we as humans were genuinely intrigued by things different than our own bodies. I know personally I love and appreciate the differences in each race. I’m a white female, but what the hell does that matter? I’m entirely a human out to explore and learn about everything on this planet. If I have never felt nor experienced the texture, or what not, of another race’s or another human’s body/hair that intrigues me, then I haven’t learned what that texture feels like and I’m forever curious just to know. How in the world does that make one racist?! It’s curiosity of the world around us! I of course am a human, like stated before, so I of course know to ask and explain myself if I were to actually want to touch someones being. I know some people have bubbles and are uncomfortable, I understand that. But if someone is curious about how my own hair feels, I take it they want to learn what what they see feels like. They know what it looks like, but feeling is a different sensory that we like to explore. I’m exhausted with the “race card” people “pull”. Let’s just be human and accept we’re all different and that some can be confused and interested in the differences.
    -light & love

    1. love it. I really never knew that I came across as offensive for asking to touch someones hair. The one time I was asked to have my hair by a stranger, albeit one from my own race, I actually let them. It was a strange and interesting, somewhat intimate experience. Aside from making love with a person of a different race, really there will be no other opportunity to experience such a simple yet rare fundamental part of other people.

  30. The schools I attended up until college were in a community where the racial balance was 80% black and 15% white, so obviously it was a very different perspective- I’m white, my black friends would always be asking to touch my hair, because the texture is so different and they were always amazed at how smooth it was and how when braided, it would just fall apart, not stay put in a braid. Yeah, I got teased a lot for my hair but I didn’t mind, it was something different and they just wanted to see what it felt like.However, that being said, personally I don’t really feel like contributing to the white fetishization and objectification of Black women and men because I know that even though I grew up in one paradigm, the rest of the world is not like that and I’m gonna have to learn how to use my white privilege in such a way that I help, not hurt, the cause of dismantling systemic racism, and that starts with respecting the wishes of POC when it comes to their hair or anything else.

  31. Im a white woman in Australia so this issue is odd to me. Reading it was thought provoking but more in regards to the art with hairstyles and perceptions of social status. The comments by the author on the other hand and in the comment section however I found mildly offensive.

    No interest in breaking down cultural barriers? In my work I am constantly trying to promote intercultural acceptance. It’s a 2 way street… You can’t expect acceptance but then say no we dont wanna talk to you coz you don’t get us. Shutting people out isn’t gonna fix it. You don’t believe in incremental steps? Do you think one day there will just be a riot and everyone will live each other after? Rome wasn’t built in a day.
    White folks absurdity at touching? Apart from the essentialising of white people here and implications of inferiority… And maybe this is because my experiences have been different but
    As for the touching thing, im not sure whether it’s blown out of proportion. I have quite long hair and have people touching it when its out and that doesn’t bother me. I can understand how it might be annoying, I suppose it’s a personal thing. But similarly I’ve touched hair to look at extensions or the quality of a curl. It’s never been a weird race thing. I think people just are interested in something different to them or just a new technique…

    1. You miss the point. As an adult, it is your own responsibility to educate yourself. It is not the responsibility of a marginalized people to teach you as to why and how they feel marginalized and to explain to every single person they meet or deal with why they are marginalized and how you as a white person should act. It can be mentally exhausting dealing with the same subject day in and day out. Some people may be totally willing to explain and reach out to you but others simply don’t want to put up with the emotional baggage anymore and you should respect that. There are hundreds of posts and books you can go to educate yourself. You should respect it when someone says they are too tired to do your learning for you.
      Race relations are not the same in the US as they are in the UK as they are in South Africa as they are in Australia. The US has to deal with the toxic fallout from slavery where black people were literally possessions and were kept from voting even as little as 60 years ago (and I would argue current racist voter policies are trying to usher in a new era of Jim Crow laws targeted not only at poor urban blacks but also Latinos). All you have to take away from this is that some black people see it as racist that complete strangers feel it is ok to reach out and touch them. Others (like the women who did the feel my afro exhibit) might disagree but you never know how someone feels. You might disagree with them about the motivations of certain actions but that really doesn’t matter because you have not been the target of racism. You know now that some people even feel it is rude (and racist) to ask. So don’t ask and don’t touch. Simple. Your curiosity is not more important than someone’s body autonomy.

  32. I am a white woman. I have extra-ordinarily thick, mid-back length, straight hair. My hair has been commented on and touched with or without my permission, by people of many ethnic groups, for most of my life. In my adult years, I understand it is a compliment. (In grade school, when the yucky boys would pull it and yank it, I was supposed to accept the idea that causing me pain and discomfort was an indication of liking me.)

    I certainly never believed it was racism, whether the touch-or was a Hispanic woman or a black woman or a white woman. (I don’t let the boys touch it. They’ve been proven to have dubious motives.) However, I am also aware that this non-racist belief regarding hair-touching comes from a position of privilege- as a person with truly glorious, jealousy-inducing blonde tresses.

    I do believe it is an indication of the “otherness” as indicated in this article; people are naturally curious about things that are different. The processes by which we discover the world around use changes as we age, but we have a pretty typical need to touch things to learn about them. We learn what is socially acceptable to touch as we mature- a kid might be taught to stuff his hands in his pockets at a toy store, for example, so he won’t touch. Most adults know that not only do we not touch without permission, but we tend to keep a “personal bubble” as well, the dimensions of which differ depending on your culture of origin.

    I understand that racism is still a problem, everywhere. I also understand that is the ones being racist that need to fix themselves- there should be no more burden for black people to “fix” a white person’s racism than it should be for a woman to adjust her actions and clothing in order to not be raped.

    Having said those things, however, I believe there is value in discussion and de-mystifying “otherness.” I think this applies to a lot of situations, from so-called “homophobia” to racism. If there is an “us” and a “them,” there will always be competition and hate and misunderstandings and fear. Instead I believe there can be a “we,” a togetherness instead of an otherness. One might think being part of a “we,” individuality would be lost. But having a “we” instead of an “us” and a “them” doesn’t mean a person, a culture, or even a subculture would lose their identity. Changes to what that identity means, perhaps. But it won’t be lost. Our history will always be there, our backgrounds will never be lost unless the individuals choose to lose them. Who we are, and how we choose to live, and what ideals we will accept, and which behaviors we will shun, those are all things that are decided on both individual and societal bases.

    I don’t believe that “otherness” must necessarily be a fetish or exoticness. Sometimes it’s simply a barrier to understanding. Sometimes its an excuse for discrimination and stereotyping. It’s also been used as a reason for genocide. In pretty just about every one of those circumstances, it seems to be of a benefit to everyone to reduce the amount of ‘otherness’ being felt by the offending side.

    Black women choosing to invite people to touch their hair, to break down the “otherness,” is important to breaking down racism. Yet I think it is equally important that there were counter-protests showing the opposite opinions- that touching is not ok, and that some do not agree with the idea of touching as a learning tool at all.

    Having all of those differences and experiences available to us, all of them, IS ok. It shows that we will not ever be a nation of people with one homogeneous skin color, and to me that’s pretty exciting. It means we have a chance to eventually see a nation in which all peoples are celebrated for their differences, while at the same time seeing everyone else as part of the collective “we.”

  33. Many years ago I traveled to Thailand. It was my first time outside the U.S. and I was quite young. During the 6 months that I was there, I spent some time in the northern region of the country, near the border with Laos. It was remote and mountainous. I was the only woman on a jungle trek; each day the group (of 10 men and myself) walked on thin single track paths. It was truly the middle of the jungle (also known as no-where). One day I was sitting on a log near the river and several local women approached. They were not speaking Thai but some other dialect of the region. They sat next to me and excitedly talked as they inspected my body. They touched the hair on my head, the hair on my arms, my ears, my legs. I was a specimen to them, and it was as though they had never been so close or touched a white woman before. Although it was disconcerting and definitely not something that I experienced everyday, I was never offended or insulted. It was their anthropology moment, and I was honored to be the subject of their study.

  34. Wondering where the analysis of media and consumer culture is… How many products & commercials promote “touchable” hair as something everyone should strive toward?

  35. Lots of white folks here are missing the historical trauma and systemic nature of objectification of Black women in this country. Of course when there are personal relationships much intimacy is possible, but assuming a right to satisfy curiosity with a stranger is privilege at work. And or folks travelling either in the US or outside, when others ask to touch your hair- this is not a common and repeated othering in your homeland, but a traveller’s experience of the new. Very different from being objectified in your own land. We got lots of undersanding and ending white privilege work to do people- from another struggling white woman trying to undo what my American upbringing did to me.

    1. Excellent point. My light-haired/skinned mother experiences this in India, my cousins all want to touch her hair – of course it’s entirely different because she’s associated with their ideal of perfect beauty, thanks to a weird conglomeration of western media influence and British colonial legacy.

  36. It seems many of you are new here. So hi and thanks for reading. I invite you to look at our mission statement (see tab above). It will give you some sense of the scholarly and activist perspective that guides the work. First and foremost, this is a safe space for women of color and people of color to talk about issues which concern us, which means that we do not spend a lot of time in the comments section trying to explain the obviously racially problematic implications of white cultural fixation with Black people’s hair. We assume at baseline on a post of this sort that our readers understand this. If not, we invite you to educate yourselves by perusing any one of several hundred posts on this site that make our Black and Women of Color Feminist perspectives clear.

    But in short, what you can expect is that “the race card” will be pulled here. In fact, those are the only types of cards we play here. (Because all the cards are raced — even the white ones, lol). So if it makes anyone uncomfortable, this might not be the site for you.

    Thanks again for reading.

  37. When my best friend visited Africa, he happened to visit to a little village in the middle of nowhere, and came across quite a few children whom had never seen a white person before. They were stroking his skin and giggling and a few of them even tugged on his hair. (He had long red hair.) When I was a child, I had long blonde hair that kids used to touch all of the time (sometimes without permission.) Sometimes, I like to touch balding men’s heads to see if the hair that’s left behind feels soft, like a baby’s. I personally ask permission to explore another person’s being for the sole purpose of getting closer and bonding with a respect to an individual (or group of people) that I find interesting. I don’t think I’m alone in this. There is racism, then there’s curiosity.
    The author’s childhood friend whom asked her what her hair felt like had no prior knowledge beyond her parents asinine racist ramblings of what a black person was like. I believe that if we talk to one another and answer eachother’s questions and dispel the lies we can come closer to equality and quash racism.
    I think people are forgetting what the definition of racism is. It’s when a person(s) hates or feels superior to another person(s) culture or skin color. Someone asking questions about another race out of genuine curiosity is no more racist than a baby tasting ice cream for the first time.

    1. I do not understand why you would think the story of some red-haired dude’s visit “to a little village in the middle of nowhere” (note that this description of a place that is most certainly not “nowhere” to the people who live there is already problematic) is analogous to “white” Americans asking to touch the hair of African-Americans. Are you suggesting that, if you were to encounter an African-American woman, you would view this individual as exotic, strange, a visitor to a land in which you are native and she is foreign? That says a lot about how you feel about the place of African-American women in America.

      I noticed your attempt to promote blondeness as an ideal. I ain’t buying what you’re selling. Blonde hair, long or otherwise, is not universally appealing or fascinating. I’m guessing that the people who couldn’t stop touching your hair when you were a kid were a mixture of a few boys who were dared by their friends to touch a girl and would have touched your hair whether it was blonde, black, or green, other girls with whom you engaged in mutual grooming frenzies, perhaps the odd pedophile or two who was less attracted by the blondeness or length of your hair and more attracted by your general acquiescent disposition toward people touching other people when they shouldn’t, and people who were checking you for lice. Here’s what you were trying to say: “I used to have long blonde hair, so people used to touch it all the time because, of course, anyone would find touching long blonde hair irresistible because long blonde hair is just super awesome and totally the best, and so, based on my experience of having hair that everyone wanted to touch because, again, it was LONG and BLONDE, I am here to say that being pawed like an animal in a petting zoo is no big deal… and African-American women should be happy when they are objectified because they should be grateful for the curiosity about their species.” I think that’s what you were saying. I like how we’re talking and understanding each other and dispelling lies. This is total funsies.

      1. …Wait wait. Does someone have to explain the American fascination and love of blonde hair so she can justify posting her own experiences?
        I’m a little confused here. She said people touched her long blonde hair all the time, sometimes without permission. She has blonde hair. She is relating an experience.
        When I was little people would touch my hair, it was long and dark.
        Does it make a difference?
        But actually though, does her relating a childhood experience mean that she has to literally backtrack and be like FYI MY HAIR ISN’T BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE’S BECAUSE PEOPLE TOUCHED IT. Everyone knows people in the US like blonde hair, whether or not we particularly like that fact. Is her point of view totally invalid because she doesn’t explain that?

        Is something as small as pointing out that people apparently liked her hair really mean that she is promoting blondness as an ideal? Do experiences have to come with some kind of disclaimer tag?

  38. First time reader here, thought the post was very insightful…and then got somewhat confused by all the comments which didn’t seem to be coming from the kind of readership I would have expected based on the post. Then I saw the author’s comment and it cleared everything up, haha. Great post, OP. I plan on reading more.

  39. Oh yeah, I forgot to ask: have you seen Beal’s video on the same subject? She allowed her coworkers to touch her hair and then interviewed them about it; all their responses were extremely uncomfortable and she really emphasizes the erotic dimension you mentioned in the post. I found it somewhat discomfiting, but thought-provoking.

  40. What struck me about this article was the comment that if you are still having to do things like this, then you are not over racism yet, as a country. I could not agree more. Here in the UK we would probably never do anything like this. We don’t suffer racism as badly as you guys have it still, I think the US is pretty screwed up racially. Anyway all the best, Louise in London

  41. Point from where I am speaking: White. Scandinavian, so not encountering black people on any larger scale in my everyday surroundings. Problems of race/ethnicity more in the area of brown muslim people in my country. Had my share of enduring hair-fetishism within the context of my family, though of course without any racial ramifications there.

    First, thankyou for a nuanced and thought-provoking article. I am trying to set my own beliefs and behaviours in to context here, so as to understand if change is needed…

    One: I love dreadlocks. I used to have them, for a period in my late teens-early twenties. For me they were part of a rebellion, taking ownership of my hair, which was considered ‘the prettiest’ in my family (It’s auburn and completely straight), and so the notion ruled that somehow my hair was public domain, and I was always bombarded with unsought opinion on what to do with it (which tended to boil own to ‘keep it long an uncolored cos ITS SO PRETTY!’).
    It drove me up the wall – so THAT part I can identify with. Now, back to the dreadlocks: I loved’em. I knew of course that this was a hairstyle originally developed for black hair, but I honestly didn’t THINK of it as particularly ‘black’, since I have seen lots of people of all skintones wearing it. It’s already been appropriated into the mainstream.

    But what this article make me speculate is this: were my dreads actually problematic from a racism point of view? Were they appropriation, colonialist? The thought honestly didn’t even cross my mind then. I just thought they were a cool hairstyle (mind you, in Denmark there is not the demand for straightening of black hair at work etcetera which seems to exist in the US… the issue doesn’t seem to exist here).

    I sometimes miss my dreads now, and have considered mohair-extensions again (they’re easy to remove again an come in all shades of colours). But before I do that, I’d really like to hear what black ladies have to say on this. Is dreadlocks/mohair-extensions ‘black hair’ today? If yes, should I keep my white grubs off it, or…?
    There are many ways of ‘touching hair’ after all.

  42. PS: Shit, I just reread my post and realised it could look like I got dreads to make my hair ‘less pretty’. THIS IS NOT THE INTENDED MEANING – I actually dig dreadlocks, and I got them because I liked them and wanted some change. My mum was less accommodating, but then, it wasn’t her hair was it?

  43. I am a half-white half-black girl that lives in a large Midwestern city. I recently ended my job at a White salon in an East African neighborhood that mysteriously had no clients that fit this description. After no longer wanting to dole out my employer’s racist demands, I quit. Simply, it was the product of weeks of debates surrounding Black hair. The largest argument I received was that there is no “Black hair” and “White hair.” I agree with this to an extent: hair, technically, exists on a textured spectrum, and most people, no matter how you identify, have elements of texture to your hair. However, what makes this an undoubtedly raced debate are the historical and cultural notions surrounding it.
    We women have had it poked, prodded, marveled at, and touched since European contact. This fascination with our hair and bodies bleeds into our contemporary existence, with this discussion now. The fact that we began braiding, cutting, and twisting our hair to accommodate our 15+ work days in fields and the demands of being a slave also shape our appearances today: we still braid, cut, and twist our hair, and do so artfully and with conviction. Alternatively, we have sought to escape,–not invert–to escape this gaze by straightening and relaxing our hair to fly beneath the hegemonic radar of beauty. To invert the gaze, we need to firstly embrace our hair and stop punishing it; and secondly, invert the gaze through movements like the ones mentioned above. People need to reflect upon the idea of being touched by a stranger, or being treated as an object. At the same time, there is still an issue within the Black community that Black women–and the stuff attached to their head–is beautiful, and deserves to exist as is. For instance, is nappy a bad word? Does the afro need to make a statement? How can we exist without being commented upon or categorization?
    Lastly, I need to mention the fear surrounding black hair has institutional elements as well: I know for a fact that hair schools do not stress or make an attempt to learn to do black hair, and therefore produce people that can’t do it. I urge people to only patronize salons where all employees can and WILL do it, and in turn create a demand for equality.

    1. Great comment. I strongly agree about the salon thing–black hair should not be ghettoized to specific salons, and “standard” beauty training should not be limited to white hair.

  44. I’m a tactile junkie, and as such have always been curious about the texture of others’ hair (and fabrics and textiles and pretty much any object you can think of). My own hair is very coarse and thick and curly, so my friend’s pin-straight blond locks have always been just fascinating to me as my other friend’s chemically straightened, jet black hair. I frequently have older women of various ethnicities, and some men of all ages, touch my hair without asking and it is startling and often makes me uncomfortable.
    As such I would never presume it would be okay to touch another person’s hair. Ever. If a person offered their hair for touching (as I’ve had customers offer before, after I’ve complimented them on their new haircut or dye job), and I knew them tolerably well, I would take them up on the offer. But touching without permission is horrifying.
    That being said, the last time I was on the bus into the city, though, a small African American girl of about six approached and said my hair was very shiny, then asked if she could touch it. I said yes and let her feel my hair until her mother noticed and made her stop. Perhaps if there were more cross-cultural intimacy, there would be less fascination and fewer instances of what amounts to assault.

  45. I wanna get my hands in most people’s hair, due to being a cosmetologist. Most people want to touch my hair due to it’s unique texture. I Read the middle here where the dialog is changed about White people embracing Black ways, but then on the latter hear we are not to copy it. There is that fine line of being racist or imitated yet again. You know what I see. One day there will be enough of a blend of White to Black ratio that the grey emerges. It is not about one way or another but a blended culture, An american culture that we can finally put the label maker down.

  46. I think most people on here are missing the point. Its about privilege. If the discussion was is it. Ok for a man to grab a woman’s breast. Whether he asks or not is irrelevant. His fascination doesnt matter. He, for his own amusement, is dehumanizing another person because lets be honest. You just want to. It doensnt answer any of your life questions. You just believe that because you want to. You should be allowed to. The fact that you ask is objectification. And racist. Lets be honest. How often is it black people asking to touch your hair? So thats why its a white issue. And its white privilege that gives you the idea that you’re justified is any arguement to give you permission. Are you fucking kidding me?

    And how is objectifying yourself for other peoples amusement bettering your people or helping people undrrstand?
    Having a rally that lets you grope women to help fight rape doesn’t make much sense to me either

    1. Do you really feel that someone touching your hair is the same thing as someone grabbing an intimate part of your body, a breast or your butt?
      I guess I just want to question your analogy. I understand that when anyone is touched, anywhere, without permission or in a way that is suggestive of objectification, that can obviously be dehumanizing. But I think for many people, touching of hair (especially other women touching it) is often symbolic of friendship. I know in mainstream American culture (especially going back in time) girls brushing one another’s hair was an act of friendship. In India (traditions I know, my father is from there), braiding someone’s hair is something seen as sisterly, indicating a close friendship. I suppose that’s a bit different than just straight up ‘touching’, but as far as I know, most people I know view touching someone else’s hair as an act of fondness or affection. Friends will tousle my hair, or tug on it. I love it when people touch my hair, or brush it, or do anything with it. (The only time I didn’t was when a girl I knew tugged on my ponytail, and then turned to my boyfriend and told him how cute I was. That I didn’t like, and felt like I was obviously being objectified.) Obviously other people don’t have to like it, and that’s just me, but I wonder if there’s some cultural (or racial) miscommunication going on.
      Is hair-touching always objectifying and dehumanizing? Obviously it can be, especially when done without permission, but does it exclusively have to be?
      And I’m not white, if that makes any difference.

  47. OK, Sarah? You wouldn’t – BUT plenty of people DO. I am white, with really rather standard mid-brown white girl hair and white people touch my hair often, and my reaction is rather like that of the people commenting here – touch my hair and I will touch your back, not kindly. And my half-Japanese daughter – yes, she is a ‘pretty little thing’, which does not give random (white, always white) strangers permission to PAT her head/hair. Even at 2y.o. she is inclined to say ‘DON’T TOUCH ME!’

  48. To other white women: When someone tells you how and when they want to be touched -or don’t- the correct response is- I hear you and will respect that and -you-. It is not to explain how it’s wrong, not really racism, or kinda, sorta in their collective heads.

    I’m thrilled that your individual experiences were awesome or that your not racist personally. That doesn’t have anything to do a) that numerous people are telling you NO and that they don’t like it, b) they’ve had it done far, far too often, and c) that other people are not you and can do it for ignorant reasons.

    1. YES. I don’t understand how the concept of “respect other people’s wishes when it comes to touching their body” is a difficult one. Lots of entitlement going on in this thread. Which is disappointing, because I really wanted to discuss the exhibit the post was ACTUALLY about rather than going in circles about the basic issue of touching hair.

    2. Indeed. What the hell, fellow white women? Even if you don’t understand the sentiment (I’m not sure why it’s so hard, given the history here, but even if), surely you can respect it! It’s okay if you didn’t know better before. Now you do.

    1. Gah. I don’t know why anyone would want to touch a stranger’s hair. It’s weird.
      I still think that on the level of people who already have a previous relationship, there’s some interesting racial miscommunication going on, but in general the amount of people who don’t even fit in that category is super bizarre.
      Thanks for posting!

  49. Has the CFC stopped moderating comments?

    I cannot recall a post that has received as much:

    1. “I’m white and let me tell you how I have experienced the exact same thing, but in an entirely different place, time, people, history/ies… our lives defy race”
    2. “I’m not racist, just curious.”
    3. “When you call me racist, it is you being racist.”
    4. “Loving difference(s) means learning to see past them, I’m not reducing you, just seeing to the fundamental human in both of us
    5. “I like your hair and you just the way that you are… it has nothing to do with color – I don’t see race.”

    Loyal CFC readers,

    Reading these comments was (mostly) exhausting. I hope you don’t get too bogged down with all the lip-service given to anti-racism in this comment section. Out of these 80+comments many have been uninteresting with the same old uncreative racist jargon. Yet, a few comments demonstrating either an attentive reading of crunktastic’s post, or/and, an intellectual stimulating reflection are:

    kathleen devore
    Mark time
    Masha Makhlyagina
    Nia Boyd
    Queer Queendom

    Keep writing intelligent, attentive, creative and clever posts,


    1. The last words of this article are “And you are invited to sound off about the racial politics of hair, inverting the gaze, street harassment or anything else you need to say in the comments section.”.

      Why are you trashing on people who are trying to say something, or share their experiences, or learn something here? I can understand your frustration with some of the commentary, (I feel frustrated with some of the same commentary) but frankly this has been a very polite and well-intentioned discussion from pretty much every participant, even if you don’t agree with what people are saying.

      If this invitation, as written in the article, was only intended for loyal followers of the blog who have no criticism or different experiences than the ones described in crunktastic’s post, then I think you might forgive people for thinking they were invited to indeed, ‘sound off’ on their opinion.

      1. Dee: The problem isn’t sounding off, as much as dismissal. When your opinion comes in the form of (however politely) ‘here is why you’re wrong and it’s not -really- racism, but curiousity, but human nature, but it happened to me, but it’s not that bad, but but but’ – it becomes a dismissal. It becomes whitesplaining.

        If you’re going to offer your opinion/experience without that effect, acknowledgement is critical. ‘Wow, I didn’t know that was a problem/that happened/how that was for you. I thought it was harmless, especially when my experience had been positive/neutral’. See the difference? I’m acknowledging someone else’s experience, I’m putting it -first-, and I’m not saying I define reality (It was positive for me, so y’all are overreacting!).

        Also? The links I found for you took less than 5 minutes. I’d say three at most. -This is not new information.- People don’t know better (after reading this and the comments to boot) because they haven’t don’t a five minute google search, not because numerous women haven’t written on the topic. ._.

      2. I still do appreciate the links, but I had meant at least, with my original question, not ‘is this a problem? is this a thing?’ because obviously it is, or no one would bother to write an article about it. My question was more about the frequency this kind of stuff occurred. (Every week? Month? Year?) I did not need to look up information to validate that it’s clearly enough of a thing to be upset about, since I believe the author and have seen this discussion mentioned before.

        I definitely do understand your point, and I think many people writing here are not really thinking about their experiences might be vastly different than the ones the author is describing, even if on the surface level it feels the same (people are touching my hair, wow that’s weird).

        However. This is an article. When you ‘invite’ discussion, as the author did, you are going to get it. You are not always going to like it, or think it is super intelligent or relevant to your perspective, but what is your intent, to punish people for trying? Call for moderators to delete the comments?
        As far as I know, good moderators weed out trolls and excessive language on comment sections. Not people who are (even if it’s not how you would like them to) respond to this article and relate it to their own experiences in a well-meaning way. I don’t see any bad language here whatsoever. And oddly enough no trolls either. So why the moderator?
        I’m not saying anyone has to be jumping for joy or thinking it’s not whitesplaining. Whatever, you and anyone else can think what you want, but I think that calling all the commenters who aren’t the ones she likes ‘racist’ and implying that the moderator should be deleting their comments seems hardly fair for an article that literally uses the word ‘invite’ to invite discussion.

    2. I too was exhausted by the (unexpected) onslaught of dismissal and “explanation” that the comment section became. I’m curious as to how all these random people even got here.
      But, thank you for taking the time to make that list of good comments. +1 all the ones you suggested.

    3. I am all-too-familiar with WP trying to talk me out of my reality, so unfortunately, I’ve become well-versed in the practice. Thanks for the props Lisa! 🙂

  50. I’m sorry you have to deal with that kind of nonsense. Asking to touch someone who isn’t very close to you is creepy. I have personally always found braids, afros, and other traditionally black hairstyles to be very stylish.

  51. I don’t think that it’s totally surprising that a White girl thinks our hair feels like a brillo pad. Especially since I’ve seen some “brillo heads” walking around before. I don’t mind people asking me – I’d rather you ask & actually have the desire to dispel the African American ‘hair myth’ for yourself then to keep thinking my hair feels like weeds.

    I feel the same way about other things that I can’t mention online, but I don’t hesitate to ask. You won’t know until you feel!

  52. I am a white women, living in NZ, with a 4 year old mixed race daughter. She has a beautiful and huge blond Afro, which gets touched by strangers constantly. It is at the point where she is no longer comfortable wearing her hair out naturally. It is the most incredibly beautiful hair and every person(white & black) that see hers, either pats it or pulls on it, like she is some kind of circus act. She is pointed at constantly, to the point she asks why people stare at her. I understand that she looks different than many people in this country, but the constant attention it brings has become a negative for her. I quite often pat people heads or pull their hair right back as I am tired of peoples fascination. I then asked them how they liked it, normally they don’t like having their hair patted. Some apologise, some think I’m crazy. My priority is ensuring my daughter sees her hair as beautiful and that she feels like any other ‘normal 4 year old’.

    1. My mother had a similar experience with me and my sister growing up. We’re white (I suspect we have mixed ancestors on my dad’s side, but we look white and have white privilege) but our hair distinctly “looks Black,” and random people were constantly coming up to touch our hair. When we were babies, apparently it was mostly older Hispanic women, who apparently have a superstition about admiring children being bad luck unless you touch them, which I suppose is better than touching us just to satisfy curiosity but my mother hated it. In grocery stores my sister would sit in the cart with her hands over her hair and her head ducked down to keep people from touching her.

      Once I got to be school age though, it was almost always white men and women who touched my hair, usually without asking. I’d get my hair tugged on while standing in line at the cafeteria or sitting in class, sneakily as if I wasn’t going to notice! Hello, that’s a part of my body and I can feel it! I always hated it, and I had a complicated relationship with my hair for a long time, wished it was straight and “normal” (read, white) looking. Now that I’m grown I love it, and I resent the cultural brainwashing that told me my hair was less beautiful because it wasn’t straight. I can only imagine how much worse it would have been growing up Black and hearing all the same messages even louder. I wish I’d had more Black women in my life as a kid (my town was almost entirely white/Hispanic) because my mom had no idea what to do with my hair and I had to figure it all out on my own. I’m particularly sensitive to the lack of Black women with natural hair in the media because I could have really used a role model with hair that looked like mine.

      It’s worth noting that even as a kid, I knew that my hair “looked Black” and while I wasn’t raised in a racist household, I still picked up on cultural messages that Black hair was inferior. This despite the fact that my parents and teachers routinely told me my hair was beautiful and special. It’s depressing to realize how much the media can influence children’s sense of self-worth even with supportive parents who send positive messages.

    2. Good to hear it from you, thank you, helps me understand things better for her. When I said ‘normal’ in my post I certainly wasn’t meaning ‘white’. I just wish she was surrounded with more people she could identify with visually. Luckily I have a mass of frizzy curls myself, so have cut it in to an Afro style so she begins to love her big hair. Has also made it easier for me to manage her hair, still a challenge at times, but with Skype lessons from her granny & aunties in Trinidad I am getting pretty good.
      I actually find Asian tourist the worst with the touching and just walking up and snapping photos of her, with no permission. So weird and an absolute invasion of a child’s boundaries, if I was an adult dealing with this rubbish happening to me I’m not sure how I would react.
      Thanks for your reply

  53. In the sampling of Beal photos, the women look very serious, and some look downright angry. I wonder if this was a choice of the photographer or the subjects. I wonder if, in addition to sporting “black hair,” these women were trying to affect what they view as the personalities of black women. Because, as I am sure we all know, black women are perpetually angry and hostile, with the exception of those “black” women who serve as good-natured domestic servants in the homes of “white” women and spend their days cleaning the toilets of “white” women and loving the children of “white” women with enthusiasm. Those of us who don’t have that luxury, though, are pissed off, like all the time.

  54. I find it pretty hilarious that in a discussion of Black women’s hair, all of these white people show up to tell us how she should or shouldn’t react to strangers encroaching upon our personal space.

    1. it’s amazing isn’t it, esp. the ones who tell you that if it doesn’t bother them, it shouldn’t bother you either. which reminds me of something an acquaintance of mine once recounted to me about how a co-worker told her she shouldn’t go up against management since the co-worker was also affected and had decided not to fight a seemingly unfair practice. my acquaintance rightly told her co-worker that just because she was knocked down and had decided to just lay there didn’t mean that others should not resist. i will always resist someone stepping into my space. if anyone touches my hair, i’m touching something intimate on their body and will defy them to say anything.

  55. Piping in here with an observation. Some white commenters to this post have countered with experiences of black girls asking to touch or outright touching their hair. This could be just curiosity but I sadly suspect that it is a form of white idolization that certain blacks are prone to. Decades ago, black children were asked which dolls were preferable, and down to each single child, they chose the white doll over the black doll. Just a few years ago, this experiment was repeated with sadly the same results. It is the socialization in America that children of color are made to feel less than. I once touched a white teen’s hair when I was a child and she proceeded to grab my pigtail and yank my head repeatedly. I learned my lesson that day.

    However, being a 50-year-old woman, I would not entertain someone touching my hair without permission because this is disrespectful and a violation of space. The intent of the toucher is not paramount to the interpretation of the one being touched. You may not see it as a racist act, but it is an act that says you have a right over my body. It would be interesting to see the reaction of someone who does that and is then touched in turn. One incident recounted by a poster had her touching the white woman’s hair in response and the woman had the nerve to get angry momentarily and then realized she still had her hand in the black woman’s hair. So sometimes the violator doesn’t even realize her own motivation.

    And asking for respect and telling people they have no right to touch you is not a perpetuation of racism. Last case in point, a young man who seemingly had not been raised with any morals or sense asked a young woman whom he didn’t know if he could touch her breast. When she rightly said “No” he got offended. His privilege was obviously at play. Now translate that to this situation of touching someone’s hair (and hair is an intimate part of our bodies) without permission or even asking permission. A friend or lover can touch my hair; not so much a stranger. Not every curiosity should be satisfied.

  56. Don’t you think that no one likes strangers encroaching upon your personal space? that’s not a white or black thing. I’m white, and have plenty of people at my work just pull on my hair or mess with my hair (I work in a hospital where about 85% of our clientele is black.) Babies want to touch it, kids ask questions. People are just naturally curious about what is different. I don’t think it necessarily gets to be a race thing. Enjoying your personal space is not race-related.

  57. Allie:

    These were but a few of the links I found in a very quick google search. While some of it appears to be mutual curiousity, especially in kiddos, the fact that so many different women (there were a -lot- of others) from so many different cities and work/social environments have written about it makes me think it’s not always just curiousity. In the bigger cities, these women would have encountered women of many different races, religions, and so on. Curiousity also doesn’t explain why so many black women are experiencing white women doing it to them, and not latina, or even arab women.

    1. exactly. you don’t read about asian or latina women touching black women. it does seem to be an act of assumed privilege. but you know what that say about when you assume…

      1. I think we can safely assume privilege is a factor in a lot of cases, even allowing for assumptions being off some of the time, barring extreme examples like you’re visiting a foreign country and people have never seen someone like you in person and are stunned out of standard etiquette. I’d consider that and things like kiddo curiosity to be in a different category of intent.

  58. Dee: I’m not suggesting they’re racist (I suspect more clueless or naive), should all be deleted, or yelling at them. I was more going for ‘this might be where the annoyance is coming from’ and why the responses weren’t helpful and/or well thought out in the first place.

    I think there’s a middle ground where, if we’re in a space -for- black women, that we could take a moment to educate ourselves and step back and really -read- the comments, other pieces by other authors, and think before posting. I don’t think that is too much to ask if we accept that invite to participate.

    If I posted on mental health issues or something else near and dear to me, I hope you’d do the same for me. Example: I get really tired of explaining that ADHD has studies showing it is a genetic disorder with identified genes and not a made up thing. If I had 20 people commenting about how their experiences with kids that were just being kids which all valid, but missing my point about ADHD being a thing…? I’d be frustrated, moreso if it were a mental health forum where it should be a safer space.

    1. I sincerely hope my post about I-am-white-and-had-dreadlocks were not the cause of hurt here. If so, I apologise.
      If it seems naive: yes, OF COURSE I am fucking naive. I live in an entirely different world of privilege – that is why I am asking about it. Are dreadlocks off limits for me as a white person?

      Thankyou for all your responses anyhow, both angry and friendly. They help me as a white person figure out where there might be unspotted privilege that I need to confront.

      Also, people in this thread who apparently just can’t understand the word NO…. ladies and gents, someone drew a boundary around their bodily space. How hard is it to just fucking respect it?

      1. Found this link below. Going to go with what it says. Realising it’s awkward too to come and ask ‘so, black people, do I have permission to do XYZ…. but that’s a discourse I feel trapped by and I don’t know what else I can do but ask.
        Actually, that in itself is an interesting aspect here – how not just groping people’s hair (which is obviously assaulting), but even asking and showing curiosity is tinged with racism. It annoys the fuck out of me. How do we create a discourse of both difference and community in a positive way, rather than a negative one? How do we get to that real human community without transgressing each other’s boundaries and need for separate-and-equal identity and respectful acknowledgment thereof?

    2. some of these folk need to visit or revisit the twitter hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen to get a clue about telling black women how to feel, what is verboten to talk about, and how not to call out their racist sh*t. just saying.

  59. This is a common and unneeded thread in the black community. I’m a 24 year old white male. I’ve always lived in a mixed-race neighborhood (black and white). For the past 19 years ( Elementary School through highschool, and even now that I work at an all-black highschool) I have always been asked by black kids if they can touch my hair. I never had an issue with it. Its just people being curious. Hoping for an opportunity to touch/experience something they have no familiarity with. It is definitely wrong to touch someone without asking, but that is not what we’re talking about here. So I ask:

    explain to me why letting black people touch my white, casually styled hair is detrimental towards race relations or if its any different than white people touching black peoples hair.

    1. i’d also like to add that this is not unique to me. my white peers (we were the minority in all my schooling) have the exact same experiences. especially the women (maybe because theres usually more hair to touch? idk).

      1. Kevin. Does the word ‘privilege’ mean anything to you? If not, look it up. It boils down to so-called arguments like: ‘*I* didn’t have a problem, so neither should you’.

        Stop telling black people what is needed or unneeded. It is NOT YOUR PLACE! Neither is invading peoples private sphere if they explicitly tells you not to. REGARDLESS of your own personal boundaries in relation to YOUR space. Honestly how hard can it be?

      2. Kids /= adults. That’s as clear and simple as I can make it. We’re talking about two extremely different things. Kids being curious is natural and normal, and no, it isn’t is about race. Adults that should know about race or could use things like Google to answer questions? That is the problem, that’s where entitlement comes in, and that’s where the issues are generally focused. The common experience of numerous white adults (often women) feeling they can or should be able to touch you because we’re white, we’re here, and uh, we’re white?

        I don’t recall anyone here being upset that a white seven (or whatever) year old displayed normal curiosity around their hair or racial differences.

  60. When I was a white, very blonde baby, we lived in Singapore, and my parents say that every time they took me out of the house, Singaporeans would stroke my hair and admire it (saying “boy? boy?” and then look disappointed/disgusted when they said “no, girl.”) I was too young to understand, but I’d be pretty pissed off now if someone stroked my hair without permission, just like I’m pissed off when men touch me without permission. The ageing process took care of the blonde and my hair was mousy by the time I was 12 and has been any number of colours since.
    There’s nothing wrong with being curious about the texture of something you’ve never experienced, but there’s everything wrong in treating people like exhibits in a petting zoo to be fondled however you like.
    Out of interest, is this something that black men complain of? Do white people fondle black men’s hair uninvited? If not, I wonder if that’s because of a) the social narrative that paints women’s bodies as public property and b) the social narrative that insists black men are aggressive.

    1. All you have to do is look in these comments to see several black men chiming in with “I hate this when it happens to me”.

  61. I’m half black, half puerto rican and I’ve had plenty of white girls ask to touch my hair and I’ve never been offended by it. I’ve asked them to touch their hair too. Obviously the texture is VERY different. If you only do your own hair everyday, you can’t help but be curious about what someone elses hair who is obviously different from yours might feel like. Its not racism, its curiosity. I’ve never had a black girl ask to touch my hair but plenty who just took the liberty to do so and then ask if it is all mine. I understand racism. I’ve been the victim of it like too many others have and too many more will be but I also know some people (and I mean people on any minority group) who will chock every uncomfortable moment with a white person up to racism. I get that sometimes it is, but others need to understand that sometimes its not. Yes, there are racists in this world but there are also people who are just ignorant and need to be corrected before theyre labeled as a racist.

  62. It’s extremely interesting to read arguments from “both sides” in a protective realm like the internet. Following these threads has been both intriguing and exhausting. A huge overriding theme that I’ve observed in the majority of all posts is ANGER. So I now would like to ask, is this the best approach to ultimately solving feelings of black suppression or white guilt? We all feel misunderstood. Is it about time we in a sense forgive each other for historical conflicts and move on? This is not to deny that historical conflicts happened and as a result conflicts are still in play. Do not ever forget the past, teach it, preach it, but most importantly LEARN from it.

    Bottom line, anger impedes progress. Could forgiving the past help us move on to a better future?

    1. Sarah – as a white person, I really wish you were right and that what we are dealing with is historical. The thing is, even though history certainly plays into present day conflicts, it doesn’t mean that we can all just forget about it and go home. Certainly not when there are still people who feel that their boundaries are transgressed (in which case anger is a very healthy response!). In this thread I haven’t seen people being angry about, say, slavery. I have seen people being angry about getting their hair groped.
      In my own activity within feminism I’d probably compare your post to a guy who wrote ‘but now everyone is equal and women can vote and work, so there’s no problem anymore – let’s just all get along’. What with the kind of anger that sort of posts tend to generate in me, I can only imagine what you might unwittingly trigger within non-white people with your post, well-meaning though it seems to be.

      Where a good discussion could happen in this topic, is in an attempt to sort out mutual interest and curiosity about difference from entitled behavior and fetishized curiosity – no small task indeed, and certainly not the stuff of the past, nor in any way the only way in which entitled boundary transgression in terms of racial interplay happens today.

    2. I don’t quite understand the “we forgive eachother”part. Exactly what historical conflict in the U.S. do black people need to be forgiven for?

  63. Wow. Some of these comments. Is it really that hard to understand that people don’t want to be touched by strangers and that for black people in the US there is an entire history of marginalization that adds to that? So what if you personally didn’t have a negative experience when touched by a stranger and can’t imagine that it is anything more than idle curiosity? Some things aren’t about you. Respect others feelings and don’t seek to marginalize them further by dismissing their concerns.
    I firmly believe in one’s body autonomy and screaming: NO TOUCHING. Unless you are three years old, get your hands off my hair. (Also, if you are three, I expect your parents to explain that it isn’t polite to touch strangers or to ask to pet them). Any stranger that touches me is going to get slapped and any of my friends that try and touch strangers are going to get yelled at by me and told that they are being rude.

  64. i am a white woman. although i can’t and never will understand what it feels like to be a victim of racism i have watched this shit happen to my friends and some family members. i don’t know why it is so hard for some WHITE ppl to see that it is due to race. why is it so hard for them to understand that racism is still alive today. just because you don’t experience it does not mean that it isn’t a HUGE problem.

  65. a big fail to some of the later facetious, dismissive comments that are still coming. to answer one insinuation, yes black children should be taught not to touch others’ hair (buzz cuts included) just as they are taught they have a right not to be touched. and again, because it happens to you, realize that the reason and impact is different when it happens to black women, men and children because of the historical racial element of the past ownership of black flesh. unfortunately, generational teaching from whites to their children – whether outright or tacit – that black people have no rights that white folks have to observe is still in operation. you folk act as though you haven’t sat down at the dinner table with “aunt iola” who proceeds to talk about black folk like they’re monkeys and then you profess “surprise” that when certain whites like “aunt iola” do something that you consider “innocuous” “harmless” and “done out of racial curiosity” that they do so out of racial (basically racist) motivation. as has been already pointed out in this thread, being touched as a matter of curiosity in your own country is different than when you travel to a country inhabited by people who see you as “exotic.” black women should NOT be considered “exotic” in their own damn country considering the length of time we have lived here. get over your racial (racist) curiosity. as someone rightly pointed out, no one has an obligation to “contribute to racial accord” by becoming your petting zoo. no one is obligated to let you learn about our “differences” at their expense. and EVERYBODY should be on board with the underlying, NON-RACIAL message that EVERYONE has a right NOT TO BE TOUCHED. there is no variation of GOOD TOUCH, BAD TOUCH when you do not want to be touched at all. if someone touches you, black or white, you have a right to say no. get your freaking hands off. i guarantee you race relations will not break down if done so.

    and oh by the way, outside of the hair factor, pregnant ladies you have a right to swat any hand extended toward your bellies, men you can yell a military NO when someone tries to touch your buzzcut, and moms, you have a right to tell strangers not to put their nasty, unwashed hands on your babies and small children (cause y’all know a large percentage of the populace does not wash their hands and see nothing wrong with spreading ecoli germs on your flesh).


  66. The only people who try to touch my hair without permission and ask to touch my hair are other black people. The obsession makes me extremely uncomfortable, and violates my space.

  67. I don’t think I’ll ever get over, just how freaking weird and grossly outrageous it is that people do this, and do it routinely.Just another in a long line of shit my black friends have to deal with that I’m unaware of in the bubble that is my whiteness. I have never touched another persons hair without being invited to help braid it, brush it or whatever. That wasn’t/isn’t often because I never do anything with my own so no one is under the delusion I can “help”, beyond a ponytail or painting on some Vidal Sassoon colored hair gels. I even failed at the basics of Sun In, hairbands, and barrettes.

    I appreciate the question being asked in this piece about what these kinds of exhibits are achieving, the politics of art, how intentional and responsible you have to be about it. The short film that came out of You CAN Touch My Hair, in which black women just talk about their hair/and their experiences with being asked this or touched was I thought more useful than the exhibit itself per se. Demystification is a piece of it, sure but, in an organic everyday way. The exhibit felt so uncontextualized, it’s much more than not “knowing” what black hair feels like, it’s long history of negative/painful cultural/media messages about black hair and black bodies, and black beauty.

    I hope my compliments which tend to be hyperbolic in general haven’t read to black woman as fetishizing/novelizing their look, I just genuinely love natural black hair, think it’s beautiful and want to say so, at least in part because there IS this damaging narrative out there. And I am amazed by intricate braids, or any style that looks like it took more than 20 minutes. I hope I am affirming (not that they need affirmation from me) the beauty I see in my black friends and their culture/community w/o exoticisizing it and them, it’s such a racist razors edge between.

  68. Curly hair is amazing. It is dynamic and its creative potential is endless. It is beautiful. Of course people want to touch it. That doesn’t mean they should and many people have problems with personal boundaries. Those people might follow their ill-advised impulses to touch other people without permission. To assume a person who touches others without permission is racist seems a bit of a jump.

    Alternatively racism or any type of prejudice is born out of fear of the unknown. Thinking of another person as exotic or different is due to lack of exposure. The only way to get rid of a prejudice entirely is through exposure. If our culture insists on keeping people separate and not allowing us to touch one another, that means that racism and the idea that the other person is exotic will persist.

  69. So, I am just going to put this down and move on because I stumbled across your post while looking for something completely unrelated – but oddly I have a two-sided view on this topic.

    Starting note, I grew up in a part of the country that is, I kid you not, 99.9% white. My first encounter with the idea of African American hair was at a bible camp when I was 9 where a boy told me that “black people had pubic hair on their head”. And for the record, I too agree that this was a terrible thing for a person to say. But we were kids in a white world and I am setting up what is one typical experience for a white person when it comes to black hair.

    My second encounter was when I was in my early teens and I was waiting in line for a roller coaster behind a black girl who had the most fascinating hair I had ever seen. It coiled like a telephone cord and I could not for the life of me figure out how she got it to do that, so I asked. She laughed and told me “it’s a weave, silly”. I had no idea at the time what that meant and felt stupid for not knowing.

    Then, when I went away to college, I rented a room in an urban, mostly black neighborhood near the university. And one day when I was walking home from classes, the little black girl who lived in the house next to where my room was shyly sidled up to me and asked how I got my hair to be so straight. Would you have preferred that I laugh at her for asking a “stupid” question? I did not because it was not. I had been in her shoes once, on the other side of the fence.

    And the story could end here and I could tell you that both white and black people have a hard time understanding the other’s hair. But the story does not end there.

    Skip ahead 20 years and I become a foster to adoptive mother of a little black girl, who has 4c hair. I have a good relationship with her bio family and they have been teaching me all about how to care for her black hair. We condition it and do it up and love it and she is proud of her natural hair. But she is also fascinated by my white hair. She loves to ruffle it and mess it up – to touch it, because it is so different from her hair. And to emphasize, she does not want hair like mine, she just likes playing with it. Touching it so she can understand it.

    I guess the point I am trying to make is that hair is actually a point where women, regardless of race, can meet in the middle and open a dialogue.

    We seem to see each other’s skin before we see anything else. But then we take in the other details, like hair. But in understanding those details (which, yes, sometimes means touching), we take the mystery and scariness out of the other. Or to be more blunt, would you prefer that I go through life thinking that what that little 9 year old boy told me all those years ago was true?

    Certainly no one should touch another person without permission, but don’t be so quick to judge why those questions happen. Don’t take shy questions or well meaning comments to be insults. It is how we (all races) learn, disprove the negative and come to appreciate all those we come across in life.

    1. Yes yes yes I applaud this! This is what I meant. Kind words are always best and we shouldn’t assume that questions are insults! Since when are we supposed to know everything? It’s discourses like those that never stop the cycle and break the distance. Questions are still a chance to understand the world, and when plain well-intended curiosity feels so unfamiliar it’s mistaken with disrespect, we have lost sensibility!

      1. i don’t think it’s a matter of losing sensibility. i think, instead, that questions and misunderstandings about the black prototype occur so frequently and often disrespectfully that anger, bitterness, and defensiveness arise. furthermore, black hair is punishable; children are still being suspended from school for being nappy. so when a person whose race represents the very structures that perpetuate that suspension, for instance, wants to understand black hair, it feels insulting.
        pure curiosity is not problematic. but when it occurs in a world where black women’s bodies are objectified and exploited and whiteness is supreme, it is no surprise (to me at least) that some black women respond to it with anger or resentment. i don’t know what the answer is or how to address this. but i just needed to add that piece to the conversation, as it felt like black women were being portrayed as irrational here. instead of senseless, our reactions make perfect sense to me.

    2. Here’s the difference between your experience and the experience the article is talking about. In your case, you KNOW the person touching your hair. She is not a RANDOM stranger. Also, in the roller coaster example, you POLITELY ASKED about her hair. You did not just touch it without permission, or ask to touch it and look upset or bothered if you were told no. THESE are the situations that the article is referring to. Not a DAUGHTER touching her mother’s hair. I don’t mean to sound rude I just want to get the point across.

  70. I have to say this has appalled me and I am glad to have had this brought to my attention. I have bright (natural) red hair and I get how this is totally unacceptable. All my life I have had people touch it and it makes me feel really bloody uncomfortable. When I visited Hong Kong it was seen as some sort of wonder and I constantly got people wanting to rub my head (sometimes asking, sometimes not). I have no idea why people think that they can touch someone without their permission because of something that is considered outside the “norm”.

  71. So I guess the question I have is, what do we do? What do we in a time and place when acting like there is no difference between us is diminishing an entire people’s history and experience, but paying attention to the differences runs the risk of being racist? Where do we find balance? How do I fight racism in a way that is appropriate and inoffensive to black people? Where is the common ground where we can meet as people and treat each other with respect for our similarities as well as differences? I’m angry, and sad, and worried that racism is eternal and there’s no way to “fix” it. I can’t think of a better word. I’m embarrassed because I’m obviously an idealist, and I guess the truth is, I don’t know what racism really is. I had it so simplified that I thought it was about superiority complexes. I understand that there are issues of entitlement. I didn’t grow up with them. I didn’t know there was white privilege for all the good my skin had done me. I didn’t know until I grew up that there were still such enormous social injustices. I thought I had a handle on them. I thought that through my politics and my fight for equality for all people – regardless of color, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, location, religion or lack thereof – that I knew something about racism in America and how it’s been used to divide us and make us fight so that the powerful could go on fucking everyone over without anyone noticing. But the truth is, I will never know what it is to be a black woman. There’s no way I can ever understand what it’s like to grow up in the world as any color other than the one I am. I know how painful it was to be excluded from part of my culture for my looks, but I don’t know what it’s like to live every day in a culture that has been exploited for so many reasons. I admit, I got angry when I read this, because it didn’t apply to me and I felt like it was divisive. But I had to calm down and realize that this isn’t about me and my experiences, so I don’t get to say shit about it. I just have to accept that someone who is a feminist, just as I am, has written about a phenomenon that she and many others have experienced – whether or not I want to admit that so many white people act like such assholes. I guess now I am worried that I will act like an asshole and not even realize it. I don’t grab people or touch people, I don’t like physical contact much anyway, but now I’m not even sure how to give a proper compliment without coming off like I’m saying, “Way to look good, for a black woman.” So please, I’d like to know how to go about this the right way. If there’s literature I should read, I’ll read it. If there’s a protocol to follow, I’ll follow it. I’ll make sure to practice any etiquette. Or, if black people would really just rather that I stay the hell out of their fight, I’ll stay out of it. I just don’t know what to do to be the right kind of advocate.

  72. Lola, that is such a racist premise that it is just plain ridiculous. You’re “scared” of the “scary” black women who would tell you not to touch their hair. That you might get “beaten up.” If you mean your hand may be swatted away, you are really being hyperbolic and irrational. Wow, so under your premise that you should be allowed to touch a black woman without protest, a man can touch you without protest and if you do protest or push his hand away, he can claim how “scary” you are. I don’t know how to make this clearer, you have no RIGHT to touch anyone, despite their color. I would state this about not touching the hair of a white woman whom you do not know. the world is not one big kumbaya circle where everyone gets to touch one another just because.

    And lola, you’re being deliberately obtuse. Just because strangers touching you doesn’t bother you does not mean that it will not bother those of us with a history of being touched against our will. I don’t care how your racist behind perceives black woman; you are not a blip on my radar. I go about my day doing what humans do and as long as everyone keeps to their space, everything is kopacetic. I guarantee you I do not reach out to touch folk I do not know, especially on intimate parts of their bodies (and the hair touching is for friends and lovers).

    Touching hair is NOT cultural. It is a VIOLATION of space. (Especially in a world where only a percentage of people actually wash their hands after shitting). Touch my hair, I will tell you know, push your hand away. If that’s violence, wow what white-washed world do you live in? Take your racist fears about being “beaten up” by us “scary” black women to stormfront where shit like that is welcome.

  73. Travelling in Bahia da Salavdor, Brasil, several years ago, our group of 20 Black women and men were waiting to see a performance of Balet Folkorica. Out of nowhere a European man (who spoke neither English or Portugese) proceeded to touch the hair of a woman in our group. The woman who is a minister and wore locs, had her back to the ‘gentleman’ and was engaged in a conversation so she ready had no idea what was happening until we as a group confronted the man who seemed to not understand what he had done wrong. The best moment was the men in our group coming to her aid and confronting the man.

  74. I’m neither white nor black, I’m latina, and I haven’t experienced this or seen this happening to others, I wouldn’t enjoy anyone invading my personal space without asking, I would never approach anyone this way but then again not because they’re black they should be respected but because they’re human and that’s just awful. I would feel terrible if by any chance I’d ask a black woman if she let me touch her hair and offended her, but at the same time if she thought I was being racist for doing so, I would also feel angry and unfairly judged (!!!). Don’t judge me still because I know that white and black people have a history which cannot be ignored, but I do ask myself how should it be treated in order to overcome it and then how to reclaim what’s yours without projecting and reproducing the same. (I also ask myself this because I’ve read many aggressive responses to white people just asking fair questions.)

    So regarding the artwork, I do feel like this is an interesting matter but that could be beautifully presented to the world, a taboo that should and could invite us to understand it as when we were kids: without labels, without prejudice, but also, without ingenuity. We don’t need to be aggressive in order to not be naive. I KNOW we need to visibilize discrimination first but aren’t we reaffirming it by forbidding the access to your bodies as BLACK bodies rather than inviting to accept just BODIES? (which are all diverse by the way)

    1. Also, to clarify my point, if the day came when I felt curious about black hair, I’d only ask someone I’ve known for a while.

  75. I know this isnt a big deal pertaining to the topic of the article itself, but I’m a bit confused. They capitalize the word “black” seemingly every time it is used, but the word “white” is not (except for once). Maybe this is just some grammar issue I’m not getting, but it comes off as subtly racist in a piece denouncing racism.

    1. are you white? i guess it doesn’t matter, as what i’m about to say applies no matter what: whiteness itself is entirely in “caps-lock” in every space across the world. according to the search engine, the only beautiful women are white women. according to the vast majority of mainstream media, the world is mostly comprised of white people doing culturally white shit or comodifying culturally non-white shit. whiteness is supreme in every space. let’s address that before we go around calling black people racist for putting some emphasis on their own marginalized, racial identity.

  76. The problem is this writer has just as much familiarity with white women as most white women have with black women. You’re judging what you yourself are. Black women, from a young age, ask to touch and feel white hair too. White women don’t care.

    Whatever race you are, if you haven’t had a REAL friend from that of another race, then you probably are racist. If you’re white and you don’t know anything about black hair, then you’ve never had a real black friend, period. If you’re black and you have no clue about white hair, tanning is new to you, and you think white woman’s hair is an easy-breezy walk in the park – or still succumb to the common black thought that whites wash their hair everyday, then you’ve never had a white friend for real. Real friends understand real things about one another, and it’s a shame for a grown person in America to only have ever had friends of their own race and then try to judge a whole race off of a few idiots you encounter.

    Even more, bi-racial children get it from both sides. White people touch oily hair and wipe their hands on their pants like they have some type of bacteria on their hand – it’s oil fool, rub it in. White kids surrounded by all white people – don’t blame them – it is their parent’s fault, say stupid crap about black hair. Then, black kids talk about bi-racial hair too. They feel all on it inappropriately just like this writer talks about white woman doing. They give comments about dryness and whatnot. If it has a lot of whiteness in it (straighter), the poor kid is teased as a “white girl”, when she is just as black. Girls get jealous and say bi-racial hair looks like a weave.

    This writer’s point of view is limited to her limited experience. Get out of your box and you will see the ugliness goes both ways. Yes, white people are more clueless when it comes to racism, but it is on both sides and when it comes to hair, ignorance goes both ways. Healing and peace to your soul.

    1. are you white? it doesn’t matter, as what i’m about to say applies either way: it is natural for people to be curious about the “other”. it is not strange for white people to want to touch black hair and it is not strange for black people to want to touch white hair. what is fucked up is that black spaces are so saturated with “white is right” culture that even as a black kid growing up in detroit (80% black), i did not have to go further than my TV screen, the toy store, beauty supply store — and the list goes on and on — to access whiteness. white is everywhere and it’s portrayed as the only beauty, which is why my hair was straightened for 18 years of my life. whiteness is imposed on everyone by everyone (including POCs) and blackness is not even imposed on black people. so to say that this woman has as much experience with whiteness as the white women have with blackness is erroneous. as i stated in a previous post, “white” is on capslock in every space.
      also, regarding real friends, associates, whatever: let’s talk about what it means to be racist. i have had many white friends who i would still consider racially insensitive. i have some racially biased tendencies against white people, black people, and other POCs myself — and my friends circle is quite diverse. racism does not magically dissolve with friendship. racism is far more historical and systematic than that. i can love my white girlfriend, but that doesn’t mean i don’t suspect other white people of throwing me under the bus at a job interview. i can love my black male friend, but that doesn’t mean i assume that the person who broke in my house was not black. it’s the socialization, systems, policies, etc. behind all that shit that created and still feed racism.
      and about the hair washing shit: the point of the assertion that white people wash their hair daily is not white people wash their hair daily or that white hair maintenance should be overlooked or underestimated. the point is instead that 1)most white people wash their hair more often than most black people 2)the vast majority of black people model their hair styles after white, straight hair. because our natural styles have historically been banned from work and educational spaces, we do have to spend more time and energy making our hair acceptable to spaces where whiteness is normal and now even our own community spaces. so whereas white people start off with straight hair, and can make changes from there, black folks start off with afros, spend hours making it straight, and then go from there. make sense?
      it appears to me also that biracial people have a hard time in both of the racial spaces that represent them. i don’t know much about that other than what i have heard from and seen with friends. i hope we can all progress to a consciousness where no one feels excluded on the basis of their fundamental identities.

  77. the photos of these white women with “black” hair styles is definitely funny, even down to their facial expressions. i wonder if any of them kept their hair that way in the office the next day.
    based on what i read in the story hyperlinked above, the focus seemed to be on giving white people a “new experience”. it was not quite clear to me what “new” meant or even if it was supposed to mean anything other than that. and the comments from the women about being excited and ready to show off to their husbands seemed to dwindle the project down to thoughtless objectification to me. it seemed like a superficial reaction to the fact that white people don’t know what it’s like to have or touch black hair. appreciated the poem before the male interviews, but i wanted the people in the office to engage that conversation too. i wanted them to talk about black folks performing and black hair in white spaces. while i was pleased to hear one man talk about voyeurism, there was no race talk. maybe that’s too much to ask of corporate baby-boomer white folks, but that’s my piece.
    to the points in this article about touching black hair, i, too am tired of explaining my blackness to white folks. but i used to love it, and i definitely was one of those women giving people permission to touch my afro in college. i wanted white people to understand my existence, so that they would be more comfortable with me. i wanted them to know that i wasn’t angry or “so sensitive” or off limits. i wanted them to like me and validate me so that i could feel valid. that was an unhealthy place, and i still haven’t located what in that place was social justice. but i know something in there can be extracted and utilized for building consciousness. but now, i’m over it completely; the white people in my circle have to meet a certain consciousness level in order to remain there, and i ain’t explaining shit.
    i will say, though, that i had that exact white friend in high school. she told me once that in elementary school there was only one black girl, and her mother was white and father was black. she said both the girl and the father had halitosis (the girl went to our high school, too, and yes, her breath was on bump). she gathered from that that all black people had halitosis, which she later realized was not true.
    we had some hair conversations too, and she even styled my (straightened) hair sometimes. but she was genuine, like the one in the story above. and to be honest — while i don’t rule out the possibility that the brillo pad comment stems from the systematic limitation of black women in domestic work — some afros do look like a brillo pads to me. i see that that association may be rooted in something fucked up (like, why a brillo pad and not something more soft that also looks like an afro?), but i can’t automatically blame that association on something that could just be a coincidence.
    thank you for the read. very thought-provoking.

  78. Then on top of that– and I swear I am done after this message– Don’t even get me started on white people who participate in movies that have an ass load of racist propaganda and portrays whites as racist, or portrays another race poorly. Where the hell is YOUR pride? Where the hell is white american pride? If you know that it’s a stereotype that you are racist, then why would you participate in a film that portrays you as such? Or a film that negatively portrays another group of people? If I was white, I wouldn’t be participating in any film that portrayed me as a racist, or humiliated another group of people. But White Americans don’t seem to have any damn pride either. media tells you to do this and you do it, not caring how bad it makes your people look. Where is your pride? huh? You don’t care how that film confirms stereotypes about white people, so long as they pay you, you are willing to play the part? I can go on about blacks and Asians, us brown people, because we know all too well about how our own people will humiliate the rest of us on television. But i don’t think whites realize how these damn actors are making them look in the media. Understand that pride isn’t arrogance, pride is not wanting to further sully your image and to honor yourself, it’s love yourself and protect your image– and I don’t see whites in the media honoring themselves at all if they confirm stereotypes about themselves by playing stereotypical roles, or participating films that negatively portray others. You REALLY need to work on your pride.

  79. Um, I’m a Trini (racial mutt lol) with long dark wavy/curly hair. Black peopkecabdcehite people alike ask me if they can touch it. It used to bother me, but I let them. They’re curious. They don’t think of me as any lesser, it’s different from their hair they are used to touching every day, so they are curious. I understand the wordy about fetishising or exotoxicising other cultures when negative stereotypes are perpetuated or all people of that race are reduced to subservient sex objects in the eyes of white men, like Asian women. I feel uncomfortable seeing hooker-style ‘kimono’ costumes on women when I wear real Yukata correctly/respectfully amongst Japanese people. Theres a line between respectfully having an interest in and sharing other cultures and ignorant, offensive racism. The truth is black people are ‘other’ than white people. Not lesser, just different. You can’t complain about white people being interested in our different hair then slamming them for telling us we should have it straight or reinforcing that some styles are for black people only.

  80. Not everyone is the same. Some people mind others touching their hair, and other don’t. There’s no general rule that touching or asking to touch anyone’s hair is bad, and there shouldn’t be. Assuming that everyone would or should react a certain way when their hair is touched, or that everyone who asks to touch your hair is racist, is the same as ascribing the same behavior or character to a whole race, which is the crudest from of racism.

    If someone tries to touch your hair and you don’t like it, tell them that you don’t like people touching your hair. Don’t speak for the other black woman who may not mind. We’re all individuals regardless of color and our reactions cannot all be the same.

    I am black, and if any of my friends was curious about my natural hair and wanted to touch it I’d let them. I wouldn’t hesitate to ask to touch their hair either, if I felt interested. I wouldn’t generally ascribe their curiosity to racism or white privilege, just because some other white person has sometime or the other displayed those behaviors. If it was the other way round, and I felt uncomfortable with anybody touching my hair for any reason, I would also not hesitate to tell them to keep their hands to themselves, but I would not assume that all other black women felt the same way.

    More than being a person of a certain color, I’m an individual, whose decisions, reactions, and thoughts are based on my own personality and beliefs, rather than a collective mindset I should subscribe to, due to my race or skin color. The same goes for people of other races, so just because James the slave-owner thought he could touch a black woman’s hair because of his ‘white privilege, doesn’t mean Sally from my history class feels the same way.

    That being said, I do think that putting on exhibitions and so on, to “demystify” black hair is not a good idea. With more understanding and acceptance from both sides, things like Black women’s hair, White people freckles, Latino’s olive skins, and Asian women’s small bones, would be demystified in time, on an individual to individual basis.

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