"Can I Touch It?" White Women Photographed in Black Hairstyles

Photographer Endia Beal discusses her project "Can I Touch It?" in which she challenges our white standards for what constitutes a "professional" hairstyle.

It almost sounds like the opening line to a joke: A young black woman takes a bunch of middle-aged white women who she doesn’t know in Woodstock, N.Y., to a black salon, gives them a new “black” hairdo, and then takes their portrait.

[...]

Although the project has a quirky sense of humor, Beal is an artist looking to open a dialogue among people of different gender, race, and generations about the ways in which we express ourselves, specifically in a corporate environment.

Hopefully, this project will open more dialogue regarding our narrow definition of what is an acceptable hairstyle for a corporate environment.

Regarding her inspiration for the project, Beal describes an instance during her time interning in the IT department at Yale in which she heard a rumor that her colleagues, mostly white males, were fascinated with her afro and wanted to touch it:

Being an artist and not wanting to shy away from her afro—or what Beal called “the elephant in the room”—she asked the men to not only touch her hair but to really pull it. She then recorded them a week later on video talking about what was for many of the men a new experience. “I wanted to allow someone to feel something different, to experience something they never had before, and through that experience, they felt uncomfortable,” Beal said. “And then to talk about it kind of amplifies that feeling."

Here's to hoping this project finally puts an end to strangers thinking they have the right to touch black women's hair...

Source: Slate

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ETA: 10/16/2013

Hello, all! I just wanted to say that I'm pleased that Dodai Stewart shared this post to Jezebel because it lead to an overall productive discussion about the politics surrounding black women's hair. Dodai, if you're reading this, thank you!

As a white woman, I feel responsible for making feminism more intersectional and ensuring the voices of women of color (WOC) aren't drowned out in favor of white voices. In the case of this post, it was about an art project that was specifically addressing the experiences black women have with unwanted touching of their hair and the overall "othering" they face in everyday life.

Because I can't speak to these experiences, I wanted to feature some comments from WOC in response to this post. It is tempting to try to empathize with black women's experiences by relating them to our own (e.g., I've also experienced unwelcome hair touching), but as white women we need to remember that not every conversation needs to be about us.

If you are a WOC and want me to add your words to this post, please let me know in the comments below. Also, let me know if you'd like to write your own blog post on this or other topics to be shared to Groupthink.

From commenter AlisterGrowley

I fucking hate that every time there is a post or article about an uncomfortable truth about the black woman's experience, the top comments are always from admittedly white ladies writing about how they "can relate soooo much" because they have curly/long/buzzed/funny-colored hair.

Yes, strangers touching your hair is anything from awkward to downright scary, but the social and historical context of specifically black women not having ownership over their own bodies is A Thing.

White Ladies: It's Not Always About You. Yesterday 4:48pm

From commenter kshortie16:

Okay, but here's the thing about this space.... most articles are directed towards all women and all women's experiences. Cool. Fun times. We all have street harassment stories. Some of us have experienced abuse in some way. We may be the only women in are fields. Fine. All this is a good time to learn and relate b/c they are presented as universal. This, however? Not so much. It is specifically about the politics of Black Hair. Not "Jewish" hair. Not "red" hair (aside: Sabina Karlsson is a Black redhead, btw, so I wonder how her experiences intersect with that). Not tattoos or any other body modifications. But Black hair. While the "don't be an asshole and touch people without their consent" is a universal take away, the politics of Black hair are specific to Black people, and in this case, Black women. In times like these, listening and sympathizing is fine. However, this is not the time to say "Yeah, because I'm tattooed and and it's THE SAME". No, it's not the same. Similar? Sure, b/c people are fuckers and discrimination as well as dehumanization are not a "Black" thing. But you don't actually understand this issue and this would be the time to not actually presume that you do. The specificity of it means that you fundamentally can't unless you are a Black person. It's not oppression olympics. It's acknowledging where there will be some cultural differences.

So what do you do in these cases? Listen. Or say "Yeah, I understand people's fucked up notions of consent but not in this way". The problem isn't that you can relate. The problem is that your voice will be privileged when, in this case, it really shouldn't be. The top comment of this thread shouldn't be a white woman despairing over people touching her red hair or tattoos or whatever. Black women aren't allowed many spaces. Don't be tool who can't even relinquish this one. Yesterday 11:56pm

From commenter BostonAfroRican:

I'm transitioning to natural hair, so I'm already preparing for the petting. I've been getting it lately because I'm rocking the long box braids. It's been jarring, because I've had relaxed hair for so long, white people haven't ever made a fuss over my hair before.

Let me tell you, I might not have been getting petted until recently, but I can't tell you how many times I've explained relaxers, or 'no, my hair didn't grow a foot over night, or 'no, I'm not dirty because I don't wash my hair everyday'. Yesterday 12:51am