The Sights & Sounds of "You Can Touch My Hair"

Growing up, touching my hair was the sole province of the family caregivers who would wash, brush, braid, cornrow, pigtail, or hot comb it until I was myself old enough to manage its daily styling. As I entered adolescence, those family members were replaced by the professionals who'd relax it during the school year and box braid it in the summer. In the year since I've begun my transition to natural hair, I've claimed all responsibility for its styling and care. Nobody touches my hair but me. This is not to say that I recoil from the affectionate touch of friends or lovers, but I always remain very conscious of the fact that I may need to pull away at any moment should things suddenly go awry. On this score, I'm hardly a unique little butterfly. No touching, like silk scarves and fear of water, is just one of those black girl hair idiosyncrasies recognized as a fairly reliable given.

So why is black hair so noli me tangere? It's more than a matter of sociopolitical taboo. There are some actual, practical reasons. Black hair is often delicate. Whether permed, weaved, or natural, there are few black hair styles that don't require a fair deal of money and even fewer that don't demand a great deal of patience and time. Most of us would prefer not to have uneducated hands dirty, tangle, frizz, mat, knot, break, and generally undo our chosen and sometimes painstakingly achieved 'dos. And yet many of us experience the intrusive indignity of strangers touching our hair, often without warning or permission.

So when news of Un'ruly's You Can Touch My Hair exhibit hit the wires, I was perplexed, nonplussed, baffled, befuddled, outraged, & extremely curious. After engaging in much debate, here & elsewhere, I resolved to attend the second day of the event in the hopes of arriving at the most informed opinion.

Allow me to set the scene.

The kind of energy present in Union Square on a clement Saturday afternoon in June is an ecotone of skater boys, goth kids, yuppies, hipsters, modeling scouts, dog walkers, concrete sunbathers, street performers, and a shantytown of homeless hippies milling throughout a major connective hub of constant happenings. (Mere minutes after this exhibit reached its conclusion, a Turkey protest was in full swing.) This was the stage and backdrop for the mini-media circus of television camera crews, bloggers with DSLR Nikons, lookie-lous with smartphone cameras, confused tourists, conscientious objectors, and a thoroughly unexpected drag queen cameo, all assembled to witness this spectacle.

Despite my conviction to keep an open mind, it was impossible for me to enter the event without expectations, most of which would be shattered.

Expectation: There would be several models of varying age showcasing the vast diversity of styles and textures that black hair offers. Afros! Twists! Bantu knots! Braids! Locks! Perms! Weaves! Waves! Kinks! Curls!

Reality: For most the event, there were only three volunteers, all in their twenties. Two with kinky curls, one with locks. A fourth, with afro kinks, joined some time during the second hour. Many in attendance commented on their disappointment at the lack of a representational spectrum.

I asked Maya, a journalist, why she had chosen to volunteer her hair for public touching:

I chose to do it because there's a lot of stigma around black hair, and I think a lot of people just don't really know about it. In the mainstream media, you see a lot of white hair products. All the girls in the commercials always have that long, flowing hair, so I think there's a lot of unfamiliarity with black hair and what you can do with it. My personal choice was that I think it's a great cause to really show people that yes, we have black hair. Yes, it's not always rough and hard, and we can do stuff with it. So kinda just trying to educate people about it.

I then asked her to weigh in on the social media firestorm.

Oh yeah, I saw that. I saw people say, "This is a petting zoo!" and all that stuff. But for me, it's a personal choice. I don't mind people touching my hair, and I think, you know the saying that everybody has, "You never touch black woman's hair?" I think that's something that needs to go because it's taboo... We're just trying to break down barriers. People can think what they want at the end of the day, but it's a personal choice. And if I don't mind it, you shouldn't either.

Expectation: The atmosphere would be that of a —I mean, at this point, I sound utterly repetitive and unoriginal if I say "petting zoo," don't I?

Reality: I really thought long and hard about this. Despite the signs offering carte blanche, most did seek to engage the women in conversation and/or ask permission prior to touching. "Art exhibit," as Un'ruly's website purported it to be, was certainly a misnomer. "Slave auction" was far too extreme. The phrase “kissing booth” popped into my brain as well, due to the models' constant smiles and giggling. Ugh. Screw it. "Petting zoo," it is.

Expectation: The touchers would be kids of color, passing tourists, and whites of the Boomer generation or older.

Reality: The touchers were mostly kids of color and white Boomers, the latter group consisting almost entirely of women. The third largest group consisted of white dudebros, both members of the camera crews and passers-by who were provoked by said camera crews. I would have to say the fourth largest group were black men and women.

Expectation: There would be educational materials which place the exhibit in context by detailing the history and politics of black hair.

Reality: There were none. As much as the volunteers pushed the word “educational,” the event would be far more accurately described as promotional. It was noteworthy that while Un’ruly’s public relations rep was on the scene handing out business cards, the "artist" who'd conceived the event was entirely absent.

Expectation: Someone would try to touch my hair, with or without asking permission.

Reality: No one dared. But simply by virtue of being there, I and other black women in attendance became part of the exhibit. What education the organizers had failed to offer was left for us to provide, mostly by being called upon to answer a flurry of highly othering questions such as, “Do you wash your hair? Do you use shampoo or just water?”

Expectation: There would be whitesplaining.

Reality: Oh lawdy, was there ever whitesplaining! Deborah, a white, 60-something English professor at a historically black Mississippi university, lamented and largely derided her students and colleagues for their weaves, wigs, and perms, flabbergasted as to why any black woman would invest so much time and money in chemically altering their hair's texture. She puzzled as to why the panoply of natural tresses in downtown New York City stood in such sharp contrast to what she was accustomed to seeing in the deep South. She was well-meaning, but I kind of wanted to bang my head against a wall.

"There was an African-American woman with locks who was offended by this whole thing," marveled Deborah. "And I think that whether you're offended or not, it opens a conversation, and that's what it's supposed to do, I think. Right?"

She seemed to check out of the conversation and lose interest when we, attempting to frame the reasons behind the event's controversy, mentioned Ota Benga, Venus Hottentot, or the incessant scrutiny of the Obama family's hair, perking up again only when our discussion shifted to varying our oil treatment cocktails for the summer and winter months. If this was, in fact, a zoo, Deborah seemed more interested in hearing the "what" of natural-haired women's doings in their habitat than the "how" of the corporate deforestation that had made them an endangered species.

I began to review the number of Deborah-esque conversations I'd had in my lifetime, and resolved that should any future party seek to sate their anthropological curiosity about my toiletries, access to that knowledge must first be earned through community, friendship, and intimacy. In the meantime, they can learn about my hair the same way I did, by accessing the wealth of information available at the tips of their fingers.

Expectation: There would be voices of dissent.

Reality: Indeed, there were. Some feared the event would open the floodgate for the non-black public to believe it was acceptable to indulge their tactile impulses on strangers' hair. One spectator deemed the event "irresponsible, mostly from a safety point of view, when as women so many of us feel so vulnerable [to public groping] anyway."

The Sights & Sounds of "You Can Touch My Hair"

"I think it's disgusting," said Jenifer (pictured left) of the exhibit. "Black people are not animals. We're not here to be petted by others, and I think this is making a freak show display of us kind of the way, hundreds of years ago, we were on display at side shows and freak shows and things like that. It's not our responsibility to make other people comfortable with our hair texture… I think the black women who organized this should be ashamed of themselves."

But by far, the most eloquent, reasoned, humorous, nuanced, and probing examination of the event came from Radha Blank (R) and her friends, Stacey Sargeant (L) and Nicole Moore (C), who showed up at the halfway mark with signs matching the size and font of the models which instead read, "I Am Not Your Sarah Baartman!" and "What'll It Be Next... My Butt?"

The Sights & Sounds of "You Can Touch My Hair"

Explaining her presence at the event, Radha offered, "We're just trying to represent the diversity in the black women's voice. Where our hair is concerned, it's such a personal space for us... Again, this is not a bad thing. We think this is great because a dialogue is growing, but what is the dialogue exactly? Who's having the dialogue & what are the questions that get the dialogue started?"

I asked Radha how, if given her druthers, she might reformat the event.

"I wouldn't reformat. I think that what we're doing is what makes an art statement powerful. Everyone has the opportunity to inject their opinion. So I wouldn't reformat because if it wasn't for the phrasing of that statement 'You Can Touch My Hair,' we wouldn't be here, and we wouldn't be having this exchange, so I wouldn't change anything. So I just encourage people to remember that black women, African-American women, & people of color —we are not a monolith. And we all have different perspectives on the issue. Where there's an invitation to touch hair, over here there is not an invitation to touch my hair... It's very hard for me to invite more people in when people already do it without seeing if it's okay with me. So I think I get what Un'ruly was trying to, but I would challenge them to broach the conversation maybe with a question. 'Why do you want to touch my hair?' Just stand there. Don't smile. 'Why do you want to touch my hair?' or 'Do you want to touch my hair?' and see what comes of that as opposed to creating that invitation because of course people want to touch your hair, but why? Really get to the heart of the matter."

Stacey questioned the event's educational merits.

"I personally don't see what education comes from someone touching. There doesn't need to be any touching. You know, black women or women of color, generally, genetically have bigger backsides. Do you need to touch my butt to know why I'm genetically predisposed to having a larger backside? No, you don't. You can just walk around and accept that people are different."

Whatever judicial objectivity with which I'd entered the day was obliterated when Radha (Is it clear how much I fell in love with Radha? I honestly could've listened to her opine for hours.) questioned, "Who are we trying to inform and educate, a why are we always seeing our beauty through the prism and spectrum of somebody else?"

Preach! If there was a failure at the core of You Can Touch My Hair, it's that it sought to court non-black acceptance as a conduit for black self-acceptance, rather than independently calling African Americans to love themselves and their hair.

Expectation: Droves lined up ready for some free good time hair fondling.

Reality: Once the counter-demonstrations began, the touchers dwindled. As the day went on, it began to take on the appearance of an open-air natural hair convention as the event morphed into a gathering of black women sharing their personal hair history, childhood memories, hair care tips, and views on the matter at hand. It was for this reason that I left feeling ultimately positive about all I'd experienced that day.

Also, this happened! Yes, that is drag queen extraordinaire Hedda Lettuce who showed up in solidarity with the dissenters… and to plug her latest single. According to Hedda, “This is what black women and drag queens have in common: Don’t touch our hair.”

See? Hedda gets it.