If you've read or seen anything about the "You Can Touch My Hair" exhibition, which happened in New York City on June 6 and 8, then you have most likely seen this picture:
That's me and an over zealous white woman touching my hair. And while I completely understand how this image could be shocking and conjure up thoughts of objectification, there is more to the story.
As the Style and Beauty editor for The Huffington Post BlackVoices, I attended the interactive art exhibit's Thursday showing in order to write about the event. Antonia Opiah, founder of the website Un'Ruly and the event's organizer, wrote a blog for The Huffington Post explaining why she created the event. Opiah, like countless other women of color, has been asked the question "can I touch your hair?" or has simply been touched without permission. So her mission in the exhibition was to "take one for the team and further explore the tactile fascination with black hair" by allowing anyone the opportunity to touch a black woman's hair.
Cue millions of jaws dropping. Mine did too. Why would anyone want to open the flood gates for perfect strangers -- white, black or otherwise -- to touch their hair? Not I. However, I realized after fully digesting Opiah's blog about the event, speaking to her and then attending the exhibition this was truly a social experiment and NOT a movement.
What I witnessed was a highly provocative approach to starting a conversation. Having three black women stand in one of New York City's busiest areas holding signs that read "You can touch may hair" is going to get people talking, a lot.
Although I wasn't a part of the exhibition and I definitely didn't have a sign inviting anyone to touch my hair, the white woman in the picture approached me and said: "You have really beautiful hair! Can I touch it?" I explained to her that I normally don't allow people to touch my hair, however for the sake of the demonstration it was ok.
She gently touched my hair and gleefully exclaimed "it's so soft!" While that was a sweet sentiment, I was left feeling uncomfortable and awkward-- even though I allowed the touching. However, I loved the fact that opening myself to this opportunity in turn invited a very real and honest conversation with the woman. I asked her why she wanted to touch my hair. Her response: "It looked so beautiful and I wanted to see if it felt beautiful too. And it does." I thanked her but then explained how it made me feel. She was receptive and apologetic. We continued to talk for awhile about how many black women feel dehumanized and other-ed when people touch their hair without permission or even when they are asked. Long story short, I doubt this woman will ask to touch another black woman's hair.
That was the essence of most of the interactions I observed for the two hours between the black women with the signs and the people that approached them. It wasn't simply a petting zoo where strangers walked up, touched and walked away. There were real, powerful, heartfelt conversations happening.
But that was Thursday. By the time Saturday rolled around and news about the exhibition got out (including my photo) and people were pissed. Protesters ascended on Union Square and a real debate had ensued. I personally think that's wonderful. The point was to get a conversation going and both sides of the issue were definitely being heard.
A group of women opposing the exhibit held signs reading "you can't touch my hair but you can kiss my ass" and "touch my hair with your hand & I'll touch your face with my fist." Feisty!
One protester explained that "people with kinky hair are not a monolith and unfortunately in mainstream society when one black person speaks it becomes the voice of many," and that she was not ok with the message of "touching" being presented.
To her point, I agree that black women with natural hair (and black women in general) are not a monolith, which is why I'm glad she voiced her views (although I'm not sure threatening violence is the best way to get your point across). Furthermore, I hope she took the time to listen to the conversations the "touchers" were having because she may have found that the "You Can Touch My Hair" exhibitors were in fact imparting the same message she was.
In the end, I understand the confusion that my photograph incited -- and I'm grateful for this platform to explain it. I'm glad I enjoy the free will that momentarily indulged the white woman's request, which in turn indulged my pointed questioning. Again, what I experienced was a creative and stirring social experiment NOT a movement inviting the world to touch black women's hair.
I leave you with an excerpt from Opiah's blog, which I believe further supports my views of the exhibition.
And if that effort means asking someone if you can touch their hair so it's not something that's foreign to you anymore, ask it. Ask the question. But ask it only when you've earned the right to do so. Ask it when you've taken the time to Google some of the basic questions about black hair. Ask this five-word request when you understand that it carries the weight of hundreds of years of being told our hair is unacceptable and now being told that it's a curiosity. Ask it when you understand that enlightening you about our hair is a responsibility no one individual wants to bare. Ask it when you've actually developed a relationship with a person to the point where you don't have to doubt their response to the request. Because if you're actually friends with a person, "Can I touch your hair?" is a question you don't have to ask because you know that you can either just do it or know to steer clear. And if you don't know any black people that well enough, maybe you should be asking yourself a different question.