Hey White People: Please, Don't Touch My Hair

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 

Since the dawn of time it seems, black women’s hair has been a fascinating thing. It can be styled in so many different ways, each one more beautiful and intricate than the last. When you see it, it’s understandably hard to not be amazed by it — it can look so different from white people’s hair. And while it’s great to be amazed by it, there is one thing you should never do. Please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t touch black women’s hair.

I know I shouldn’t have to ask such a thing, but trust me — it legit happens. Often. You can ask any black woman, and she probably has a story or two or twenty about a white woman sticking her hands where they don’t belong.

I can still remember the first time a white friend touched my hair in a less than favorable way. I was probably about ten. We weren’t particularly close — we were both in a band for kids across our borough, so we only saw each other once a week for six months. She rubbed the hair at the nape of my neck, the spot us black people call “the kitchen” and smiled.

“It feels like Brillo,” she said almost giddily, and as she continued to rub it, a grin spread across her face.

As any 10-year-old would do, I laughed it off. I’ve always had white friends, but I could never remember any of them ever getting that kind of thrill from touching my hair. But growing up where I did — Staten Island, New York — I was acutely aware that this girl may never have had a black friend before. It sounds weird, but it’s entirely possible, especially in 1996.

Back then, I couldn’t put words to the weird feeling I had after that incident. It just felt so strange and awkward that someone was so obsessed with my hair. The only people who cared up until that point were my mom and my hairdresser. If the back of my hair was starting to feel like Brillo, that usually meant it was time for mom to make another hair appointment, since I used to get my hair chemically relaxed back then.

I was way too obliging when I was a kid. If something bothered me, I’d keep it bottled up. I didn’t want to cause any sort of friction, and I really couldn’t handle someone disliking me. That’s probably one of the biggest reasons I never told anyone that my “friend” rubbing the back of my hair like I was a poodle made me feel uncomfortable. VERY UNCOMFORTABLE.

Also probably because I didn’t know why it made me feel that way. I just knew that I didn’t like it, and I hoped it wouldn’t happen again.

Now, I know that she was crossing a line, but I’ll also cut her some slack. Ten-year-olds don’t know not to touch black women’s hair, and back in the ’90s, it wasn’t a conversation we’d have at home. I can’t remember my mom ever having a conversation about basic consent with me, let alone one about not letting little white girls treat me like a lap dog.

There is not one specific texture when it comes to black women’s hair. Some are more curly, some are more like coils, and mine is dense and coarse. I know this now that I’ve let it go back to its “natural” texture. I mean, it’s hard to know if this is what it was like before the 20-something years of chemical relaxing.

I get it, our hair looks cool when it’s not the kind of hair you’re used to seeing. But that doesn’t give you carte blanche to just touch it. That’s not only rude and tactless, it’s also a microagression.

Luckily, it’s been a long time since a white woman has just decided to take it upon herself and stick her hands up in my hair. But now I know that if it does happen, I’m allowed to have feelings about it and share those feelings in that moment. Of course, I’d hope they’d ask before their hands came toward my head, but sometimes people seem to get excited and forget their manners. We’re all different, but if you ask, you may be given permission.

Last year, I took my son to get a haircut. All of the hairstylists there were Eastern European white women, and most of the other kids there were white. My son is mixed race, and while he has quite curly hair, it’s soft curls, not coarse ones like mine. As the stylist ran her hands through his curls, I could feel her eyes on my hair.

“I love you hair. It’s very different from your son’s,” she said, a shy smile on her face. I braced myself for what I knew was coming next.

“Can I feel it?” she asked. She was curious, but I could also see she was also a little embarrassed.

Again, I knew she probably never got that close to a black woman’s hair before. Because she was getting ready to cut my son’s hair and I was in a good mood, I obliged. She was cool about it — behaving equally like a hair professional and a person feeling something new for the first time.

But here’s the thing — she didn’t gawk at my head, or make any comparisons to what it felt like. She was actually quite respectful about it. That’s why I didn’t mind letting her touch it. She never made me feel like a circus freak because my hair was different than she was used to. It only lasted a couple seconds before she thanked me and got back to work.

Yes, everyone is different, and obviously, black people have different textured hair than other races. But here’s the thing most people, more specifically white people, don’t seem to understand. Black women’s hair has always been policed. And it is often still held up to the standards of white beauty. So much so that New York just had to pass a law saying that we couldn’t be discriminated against because of our choice of hairstyle. That’s the reality of living in America in 2019 for black folks.

No one is saying that you can’t appreciate black women’s hair, or even admire it. We’re pretty proud of it. But your admiration doesn’t give you the freedom to just go touching it because you want to see what it feels like. I’m a person, not a throw blanket at Bed, Bath and Beyond. Respect me, and my boundaries, and don’t act entitled to touch me without regard for my feelings.

If you approach a black woman and want to touch her hair, don’t be surprised if she says no. How would you feel if a stranger came up to you and wanted to touch you all willy nilly? Not good, I’d venture to guess. So, put yourself in our shoes for a minute, and use some damn sense.

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