By Alexis Garrett Stodghill
Black women have been wearing natural hair styles in dramatically increasing numbers over the past several years. While official statistics are hard to find, a casual stroll in any urban mecca will reveal younger black women who enjoy sporting chemical-free styles ranging from frohawks to asymmetrical blow-outs. Older African-American females often select dreads or the more flowing “twist-out” coiffure that involves twirling sections of hair together to set the wavy pattern revealed when they are unfurled.
Salons, product lines, blogs and YouTube channels have sprung up with intensity to accommodate the growing need for black women to explore natural styles. Is that why there is an increasing interest on the part of the white community to get to know black women’s hair intimately as well? The sheer volume of more textured Afro curls on display might be stimulating Caucasian-Americans to reach out and touch those seemingly alien strands — and black women are not too happy. CNN reports:
It’s a common tale shared by women of color whose natural hair can attract stares, curiosity, comments and the occasional stranger who desires to reach out and touch.
The reaction to such fondling can range from amusement to outrage over the invasion of personal space.
The discussion surrounding it is often rooted in race relations.
Blogger Los Angelista explained her response to a woman’s incredulous “Are you serious, I can’t touch your hair?” by writing that no she couldn’t, “Because my black ancestors may have been your ancestors’ property, and had to smile while they got touched in ways they didn’t want to, but I am not YOUR property and never will be so you’d best move your hand away from me.”
White respondents online have commented that black women who have this type of reaction are being too sensitive. They counter that when they travel and are in the minority as whites, their hair draws similar curiosity. It is not meant as disrespectful.
Like many debates in America related to race relations, the question of what is “meant” when a white person seeks to touch black hair only adds fuel to a raging fire. Regardless of how this explanation is broached, it is highly unlikely that any white person will say, or even think, “I am doing this to assert my racial, aesthetic and cultural superiority over you” (even if unconsciously they may be). But for many black women, that is how such an act is perceived.
Even more upsetting? Very few whites attempt to understand our hair sensitivity.
The issue of touching a black woman’s hair is very similar to that of blackface. Once a year — at least — a bunch of white kids gets dressed up for Halloween, or perhaps a racist theme party, and when the pictures of them in blackface emerge they all ask: “What’s the problem?” Then they launch into explanations of what was “meant” by the blackface, totally ignoring the impact of how it makes the majority of black people feel.
As a black woman, I have tried to be tolerant of whites’ interest in how my hair functions. I have answered detailed questions about braids and weaves, and countless times revealed “how long my hair really is,” despite the obvious embarrassment related to such an admission. I have tried to make peace with the past, and just “get along” like Rodney King said, when it comes to being grilled about aspects of my beauty routine as a black woman. But my investments in cross-cultural education have not returned compassionate dividends.