Can I Touch Your Hair? Black Women and The Petting Zoo

Hair does not mean the same thing to white women as it does to black women.  Hair for us is a physical indicator of the ways in which we are different. It is no accident that the first black millionaire, Madame CJ Walker sold hair care products. Part of female beauty has always included long flowing locks, and for black women who have  gravity defying hair, that refuses to be tamed, this can be extremely problematic. To mess with our hair, is to mess with your safety; much of who we are is invested in our beautiful audacious locks.

Many of my childhood memories involve sitting at my mothers feet as she braided my hair for the week.  Every Saturday night I would unbraid my hair, and then my mother would wash it and braid it.   I would then put on my head tie,  and go to bed thinking of how pretty I would look in church the next day.  This is a ritual that most black women can relate to. 

As a black girl growing in a mostly Greek and Italian neighbourhood, my hair often became the subject of conversation.  I was a curiosity.  People would  touch it, and ask questions about its care like my hair was some kind of pet dog.  That they were being racist, or treating me like some kind of exotic creature, never once occurred to them.

Today I am a grown woman with dreadlocks that reach to the middle of my image back.  I love them, and they are an expression of my racial pride.  What many white people often fail to realize is that wearing our hair natural is a political choice on the part of black women.  In a culture that constantly teaches that anything black, or associated with blackness is negative, to publicly wear your hair natural is to embrace blackness as a positive.  More often than not, when the media chooses to portray black women as angry or revolutionary, our hair is altered to its natural state even if the woman in question has straightened hair. The most recent example of this, can be found on the heinous cover of the New Yorker, where Michelle was depicted with an Afro and a rifle.

Natural hair equals revolutionary because it says I do not covet whiteness.  It says I have decolonized my mind and no longer seek to embrace the qualities of my oppressor.  It flies in the face of beauty traditions that seek to create black women as unfeminine and thereby undesirable.  My natural hair is one of the truest expressions of the ways in which I love myself because I have made the conscious choice to say that I am beautiful, without artifice or device.  It further states that I will not be judged by the yardstick of white womanhood.  My beauty is a gift from my foremothers who knew on a more instinctual level than we know today, that ‘woman’ is as beautiful as she believes herself to be.

Today I have the confidence to loudly proclaim no you may not touch my hair.  I am not an animal at a petting zoo.  I will not be your path to the exotic. Even worse than the ones that ask, are those that assume that they have right to touch me without permission.  I believe that part of this urge stems from the fact that black women like so many other WOC, have historically been denied even the smallest forms of bodily autonomy.  While white women were covered in multiple layers; corsets, floor length dresses etc, no honour was given to our desire for modesty. The black female slave at anytime could be forced to disrobe for the pleasure of her owners.

Today white people still feel that they have the right to our bodies.  It can be a small act like touching our hair without permission, to a heinous act as serious as sexual assault.  In each case it is an assault, and an affront to our bodily integrity.  My blackness and your curiosity does not give you the right to touch me.  I don’t care if you smile while you do it, or whistle Dixie out of your ass.  My body deserves just as must respect as anyone else.  In answer to your question both verbalized and assumed, NO YOU MAY NOT TOUCH MY HAIR.


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