Last Thursday and Saturday, a social experiment by Antonia Opiah came to life in New York City’s Union Square. Three black women stood with signs that read, “You can touch my hair,” for two hours each day, allowing passersby to touch their tresses. A fair amount of people stopped to touch their hair, question them and take pictures – embracing the ‘social experiment’. Conversely, quite a few women came with signs telling the public that they could NOT in fact touch their hair and asking what would they want to touch next?
If the overall objective of the “You Can Touch My Hair” display was to garner a reaction – or many reactions – then, I suppose the objective was achieved gloriously. Strong polar opposite opinions have been expressed via all sorts of social networks and social/cultural websites, one side feeling that the experiment was “empowering” while many others captioned the whole idea a “petting zoo.”
It took me a while to get my thoughts together on this display. First, I was a bit intrigued. I wanted to know what this was all about and who these gorgeous women were. But once all of the facts were presented and I viewed the videos of anybody touching these young ladies’ hair, grabbing handfuls and even plunging their hands to their scalps, I was confused and quite frankly, I felt sick.
I was confused because I had no idea how this qualified as an experiment. What was being measured? What was the principle being tested? What was discovered? There was no clear indicator of what was to be learned by this experiment. And isn’t that what an experiment is?
After reading the creator’s thoughts on the first installment of “You Can Touch My Hair,” I felt that the overall idea was just to begin a dialogue in a new way. A way that would cause controversy and possibly garner a few more site hits. No shade, but that is exactly what I came away with. I could see no other reason for black women with such a textured (no pun intended) history of objectification to stand in a public square and invite any and all to invade/violate their personal space in the name of starting a discussion.
The parallels between the display and the days of slavery with their publicly shaming auction block meat markets gave me pause. The closeness of the two ordeals caused me to cringe not unlike the way I cringed and felt ill after watching Spike Lee’s controversial film Bamboozled. This is the exact yoke that our grandmothers and their grandmothers and more died to lift from our necks, yes? That, in and of itself, was sickening enough. Of all the ways to begin this conversation, I could not help but to agree with many who found this particular method to be nothing short of a slap in the face to our ancestors.
I viewed the display from every angle so as to be as inclusive of all ideas as possible, but I failed to see what it did besides further divide black women on a topic that is already tender to the touch. We’re divided by who’s natural and who’s relaxed, by hair type, by hairstyling and now by who is willing to allow others to touch their hair and who’s not. The Huffington Post reported that mostly people of color decided to touch these young ladies’ hair.
On one hand, I can appreciate the three participants’ bravery (I guess…) in putting themselves on display, but on the other I ask, “Why do we do this?”
I see no other race going out of their way to explain how and who they are ALL OF THE TIME. Why does a woman’s dislike of others invading her space and touching her hair need to be discussed and philosophized about? Why can’t it just be? We fight in so many other venues not to be objectified or violated, but then stand in public squares and invite the world to partake.
I am beginning to feel that WE are the problem, more so than any other race or culture. We, as black women, are so preoccupied with the differences among us that we make a spectacle of ourselves in the name of beginning conversations that are not necessary. For those of us who do not allow it – we do not have to explain to others why they can’t touch our hair. They just can’t. Our hair belongs to us, not the public. We are not in charge of making others comfortable with who and how we are. We do not have to apologize for or explain our ‘fros and braids and locs and twists.
In an interview about the experience, Malliha, an aspiring actress, said something really interesting. She said, “It’s just dead follicles. Hair is just hair.” By that reasoning skin is just skin and holding signs saying, “You can touch my breasts,” is no big deal either, right? Malliha also stated that she participated voluntarily, in an attempt to deflate the comparison to slavery, as some onlookers called the exhibit something of “a slave trade.” I appreciate her pride in her decision and the joy she clearly came away with from the experience, but objectification is no less objectification even if participants are willing.
To pick apart our bodies to find a ‘less important’ piece to give away to the public to handle… It is a symptom of a deeper issue among black women. We do not owe the rest of the world a discussion about our bodies. We do not need the masses to validate us. We belong fully and beautifully to ourselves, not the general public.
La Truly’s writing is powered by a lifetime of anecdotal proof that awkward can transform to awesome and fear can cast its crown before courage. La seeks to encourage thought, discussion and change among young women through her writing. Follow her on Twitter: @AshleyLaTruly and AboutMe http://www.about.me/ashley.hobbs.