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“Can I Touch Your Hair?” NYC Exhibit Lets Passerby Explore Black Women’s Tresses

As an African-American woman, I’ve had strangers grab and rake their fingers through my hair (without my permission) on more than one occasion. They seem amazed at my soft curls and ask me questions about my hair care regime. Once, when I was flying, my Afro puff on top of my head seemed to require a very thorough pat-down by TSA agents. The woman who checked my hair for weapons remarked, “It’s so full! Wow.”

These encounters illustrate the reality for many black women—what grows out of your scalp (and how) is always more than “just” hair, as exemplified in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new novel, “Americanah.”

On the Huffington Post, Antonia Opiah, founder of the site, shared her thoughts on strangers’ requests to touch her hair, sharing one noteworthy incident that occurred as she was visiting Paris: 

A young, blonde, inebriated mademoiselle stopped us somewhere in the 10th district and rattled off something very quickly and passionately in French. My friend Maxence translated: “She wants to touch your hair.” My response to such a solicitation usually depends on my mood. On this night I was tickled by being asked the question in French, so I obliged. She stroked me. She actually really got in there, so I had to curtly make her stop. I wonder if she got any satisfaction from it and if so, what kind? Did my hair feel good on her hands? Was some sort of curiosity finally satisfied? Or was I simply just a Saturday night amusement?

After this incident and similar stories from women, Opiah created “You Can Touch My Hair,” an interactive public art exhibit that took place June 6 and 8 in New York City’s Union Square Park. Three African-American women with varying hairstyles and textures stood in the square with signs reading, “You Can Touch My Hair.” Onlookers were encouraged to interact with them and, of course, touch their hair. 

Of course, the idea is not without controversy. Some online commenters have been vocal about their opposition. One such commenter said, “I find this incredibly gross. This objectification of people of African descent has been ingrained in Europeans and non-Blacks for over a millennium, and this event seems to celebrate that dehumanization.” This commenter identified himself as a white male. Other commenters compared it to a petting zoo and made references to Sarah Baartman, the 19th century black woman put on exhibit at “freak shows” for her voluptuous frame.

“It’s an uncomfortable discussion for a lot of people, but sometimes we have to get comfortable in being uncomfortable to really break ground,” Opiah told the Huffington Post. More than 100 people stopped by the event on June 6, with the “touchers” ranging in age and ethnicity. 

When someone asks me if they can run their fingers through my curls, I usually ask, “Why?” They often can’t give me a reason other than the fact that it’s different. Maybe Opiah has a point: maybe we do need to talk about it. 

Watch the video of Day 1. Let’s discuss: Has anyone ever touched your hair without permission? Have you ever touched someone else’s hair?


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