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CNN has an interesting story today about the fascination with touching a black woman’s hair; ironically (despite the perspective of a Black interview subject and a presumably black author), the article itself is almost as awkward as the actual encounters with curious White people with grabby hands. It’s as if someone tried to write “Natural Black Hair For Dummies”. Peep:

“Natural hair” for black women is, by definition, hair that is not processed and not chemically altered. Straightened hair is often viewed as easier to care for and more attractive. Rather than use chemical straighteners known as relaxers (also sometimes called “creamy crack” for both the damage it can do to black hair as well as the inability of some women to live without it) some women wear their hair in its natural state. Natural hair can be described as curly, kinky, wavy, or — the sometimes dreaded and considered by some to be an offensive word — nappy.

Sigh. Better to learn from a news site than by touching a woman’s mane, I suppose. The saving grace of the piece is a quote from Renee Martin of Womanist Musings, who was blasted by White readers for being “too sensitive” when she penned “Can I Touch Your Hair? Black Women and The Petting Zoo”. She explains that the audacity to touch a stranger’s hair has less to do with curiosity than one may want to believe:  “I think it’s the idea that they have the right to possess black women and they will take any excuse they can to jump over the border, whether it’s policing our behavior or policing our hair. I think it’s about ownership of black bodies more than it has to actually do with hair.”

Some of the most memorable horror stories I got from older girls who went to traditionally white colleges had to do with hair; specifically, the fascination and confusion that many of them faced from classmates who had never been around black women in an intimate setting before. The idea of explaining that my hair doesn’t have to be washed every day, that I don’t brush it ever and why it’s not the same texture as Black Girl X or Black Girl Y is about as appealing as plucking my eyelashes. My lack of interest in explaining anything about my Negritiude and being ‘the norm’ instead had much to do with my choice to attend Howard University; most of my girls who made different choices found themselves facing those very same dreaded questions we’d heard about.

I was not able to escape the curiosity altogether; while most of my White friends and colleagues throughout the years have been either too savvy, too disinterested or just too shy to ask a bunch of questions about my hair, I have garnered some of the most annoying compliments from white folks for as long as I can remember: “Your hair is awesome!” or “Your hair is so cool!” Not pretty, not beautiful or lovely, but “awesome”. Hell to the no. I am a woman, a stereotypical “girly girl” in many ways. My (now chopped) dreads and my curly bush were not radical, funky hairstyles. They were not novel, they were normal. For us, at least.

I am not surprised that many white folks find themselves baffled by black hair. For starters, since we are not plastered in magazines at nearly the same rate as straight haired white women, nor are we depicted in commercials performing our hair care rituals and we are largely absent from the books, films and television shows that they watch, there is simply a limited amount of exposure to our lifestyles. How many of you grew up watching young white girls on TV shows talking about brushing their hair 100 times at night to make it pretty (bonus points if you were fool enough to try on your own Colored head like I was? When would the white woman who grew up in the white neighborhood have been exposed to my ritual of braiding my natural mane at night, or my roommate’s nightly scarf routine?

Our hair comes in a lot more different varieties than women of other races. Among our ranks, we have natural tresses that are straight as a ruler and kinked tight as a Boy Scout knot and everything in between. And then you factor in chemicals and weaves and we have pretty much every hair texture on the planet represented somehow. That is interesting to outsiders, I get that. However, a lack of exposure does not give one the right to treat those with whom they are unfamiliar like monkeys in a zoo. Yet, there are far too many white folks who will jump out the window and touch a black person’s hair as if it’s an exotic kitten or speckled pup. As Martin said, this has a lot more to do with respect than we may realize. Word to the (un)wise: whatever the reasons, keep your damn hands to yourself. Use the internet and Google to guide you to any answers you may desire regarding black hair and pretend that you see us brown folks as human beings.

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