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Let’s Talk About The ‘Taboo’ Of Touching Other People’s Hair

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Shutterstock / ostill
Shutterstock / ostill

I get it. Our hair, in all of its mystically thick constructs, has the ability to draw attention. It’s our kinky and curly crowning glory. That’s not conceit, but mere observation, and many natural-haired women can attest to this. For years, in all of its natural glory, our hair is a symbol of our awesomely authentic beauty. Questions, comments, double take glances, and wide-eyed stares upon our curly crowns are expected, but it’s the tactual sort of appreciation that cause controversy among the people. And the attention that my hair gets can range from the deeply obliged to the unwarranted.

But admittedly, I love hands in my hair — particularly mine. Since I was a little girl, I was notorious for always fiddling my fingers along the curve of my curls—in pigtails secured by colorful beads or bubbles, in braids, twists…. Even when my hair was relaxed for 11 years, I always resorted to my hair as a compulsive coping mechanism. But when other people ask me, “Can I touch your hair?,” my answers, the situations and results vary, which should go without saying.

Real recognize real — When I go out, donning my dark brown crown of curls, I’m representing Team Natural, which seems more like a community, than a mere superficial moniker to encourage separation among women. When we as naturals, aspiring or otherwise initiated, recognize one another, it’s done out of appreciation and admiration. Just a simple, “Excuse me. I really like your hair,” among strangers is all but strange in the sisterhood of natural strands. This is often followed up by a brief discussion on favorite products and nightly styling rituals.

Come to think of it, I don’t think a random black woman has ever even asked to touch my hair, let alone sans consent; because we know the deal. We look, but don’t touch—time went into the shaping of that crown. However, it’s not unusual to have acquaintances ask to feel my hair, out of comparison, aspiration, etc. (It’s somewhat scientific for us.)

For bonnet or for worse — In my experiences, the harpooning of one’s hand into my hair often occurs in highly social environments where vast quantities of liquor is consumed — homecoming celebrations, Greek picnics, house parties, bars, clubs, functions, and kickbacks, etc. The curls somehow attract man hands; the inviting texture of tresses, the curvaceous curls, and the smell of essential oils and butters must be the black man’s aphrodisiac (they don’t call them afros for nothing). I’ve had my thick hair groped and probed my guys in the middle of conversations about my hair, even in passing! Now fellas, perhaps you all are trying to check for the realness of the crown, and I respect the search for your true queen. But the incessant grappling of someone’s hair shouldn’t be the courting call for our attention.

One the other hand, there have been gentlemen that, at least extend the request to tactically experience the naturalness, and I find it kind of sweet. The ever so apprehensive, yet awe-filled inquiry usually elicits a warm and fuzzy feeling (often accompanied by a viscerally licentious yearning and reminiscing), that suggests the recognition and respect for all of the effort a woman puts into her appearance. These are the men who see beyond the twist outs and bonnets at night and embrace the maintenance efforts we endure to make our queendom shine through. So to the men who at least ask to bask in the naturalness of our hair, we appreciate you, you are the real MVPs.

“The natural curly hair, please don’t touch” — When I worked in retail, I used to get compliments on my hair often. One of my coworkers in particular, always remarked on how she adored my fro. What I liked about her is that she gave her compliment and leave it at that. She never, to my recollection, felt the need to ask or, to just reach out and touch my hair. In fact, she even said to me that she wishes she could have hair like mine (mind you, she’s young, with pretty, long, blonde wavy hair); even on the days I’d show up to work rocking a puff because in actuality, I didn’t have time to do anything else with it. “Nah, girl.” I’d tell her, this is hair right here is work!” And we’d leave it at that. She didn’t feel the need to wax on her further inquiries and observations on black hair any further than that. She, too, knew the deal.

When it comes to white hands and black hair, I understand that the lack of exposure to the ethnic qualities, the sheer curiosity and naïveté lead to the superficial speculation of colored folks coiffure. But you have to understand why it’s a little uncomfortable, don’t you?

“For some black people,” says the genius behind Dear White People, Justin Simien, that “being asked for permission to have their hair touched or, worse yet, having it touched by surprise elicits a viscerally negative reaction. We can’t help it.”

The one time I felt really uncomfortable with someone else’s hands in my hair was, of course, in an environment of drunkards and ill-processed actions. I spent the eve of my 25th birthday with my close friends at a number of bars in DC; in the loud and crowded mix of one of the bars, I noticed my best friend’s hand swatting away the hand of some stranger. When I adjusted my blurred vision, I saw my friend’s face turned up in disbelief as the stranger mouthed Oh my god, I’m sorry!and turned to me and I heard her yell over the 90’s mix set “Your hair just looks sooooo soft! Can I touch it?!

I must’ve been too drunk to care because I actually paused for a moment; I quickly thought I mean, yeah, you’re some strange ass person in a semi-seedy bar, but I love having my hair played in! And it’s my birthday, dammit! But nah, I don’t know you so before I was able to drunkenly utter “uh…” And just as I said that, my neck retracted from her reach, but metaphorical the intruder alert sounded with her insistent probing. This isn’t someone playing in my hair, this is some superficial speculation finally being fulfilled. My best friend and I then both swatted her persistent hand with an unforgivable glare before she walked away looking crossed between offended, shocked, yet satisfied.

But “it’s just hair,” and it “shouldn’t be a big deal,” right? Not really; the uniqueness of our hair is apparently uncharted territory for many a non-black person.

Justin Simien offers a great rhetorical question in his literary adaptation of Dear White People: A Guide to Inter-Racial Harmony in “Post-Racial” America; would you, a hypothetical patron of MoMA consider asking to touch the art display? “Simply by asking to touch the art, you would get confused and irritated looks from security guards. Appreciation must come hand in hand with restricted use of said hands.” empathy

I mean, imagine simply in the midst of minding your own business, you’re suddenly petted on the head like an adorable black sheep in a petting zoo. Perhaps this fulfillment of curiosity doesn’t quite ring any empathetic bells, but it’s certainly not the sort of attention that is warranted and embraced[1].

Or try to consider this sentiment: black hair is work—and if you don’t have much experience, then think of one’s hair as an area only for authorized personnel.

Black hair is so much work, I nearly quit my job over the course of my second (and most stressful) semester of graduate school. I didn’t take good care of my hair and it suffered, so I thought to cut my hair and pretty much start over. After taking the shears to my strands a number of times, I ultimately gave up and sought professional help. Though, where I’m currently living there are very few places a woman of color can go to have her hair saved by experienced professionals. And it was even harder not knowing anyone in the area to ask of any recommendations. So I decided to go to Ulta to see if stylist there had any experience with my hair type. I was set up with an appointment for the next morning, but I don’t think the stylist had any idea what she was up against when she saw me oscillating from left to right in her chair. After telling her that I wanted a simple taper cut, she directed me to the sink where she washed, conditioned, and struggled to comb my hair, and where she realized that there was nothing she could do for me. She had no experience with hair of my thickness, texture, curl pattern, etc. I ended up leaving the store with a soaked tee shirt collar, a damp and unevenly combed out fro, seething with frustration and anxiety.

So please, don’t take it personally if you end up receiving a rather negative reaction to the inquisition, and/or invasion of my personal space. Just know that while I respect your superficial speculation for the trained incapacity that it is, I have my reasons for denying you access to touch the crown. TC mark


[1] And what makes this public faux pas even more insufferable is when a follow up anecdote is offered to irrelevantly relay the topic to one’s own limited ideas and inexperienced inferences on black hair. Don’t offer your two cents on a counter with no tip jar. For instance, I do not care that your old roommate used to line the shower rod with her drying tracks of weave, because that in turn has little to do with me. And no, I really don’t want to hear about how your coworker explained to you what lace-fronts are. Thank you for acknowledging that our hair maintenance has its differences, but seriously, don’t worry, we already know.

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