My Hairdo Is Not Your Safari

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, New York Times technology reporter Jenna Wortham tells us more about how people somehow still don’t know that it’s not OK to just reach out and touch someone else’s hair without asking.

Jenna! So what happened here?

So, I was at South by Southwest, at a party for the artist Kehinde Wiley. I was in a great mood, slightly tipsy, loving life, and invigorated after a good conversation with a good friend. I found myself talking to a random woman, as is the way at these things, and after we introduced ourselves, we shook hands. I smiled at her and looked into her eyes, but she wasn’t paying attention. She was distracted and staring my knot—which is not a particularly spectacular topknot, btw, its just a petite, curly bun of normal-colored human hair—and sure enough, after a few seconds, her hand started to drift towards my head. I quickly and reflexively buckled my knees so that her hand would miss and graze the air above my topknot instead, but I think my bun was especially voluminous that day because her fingers still brushed the top. And that annoyed me and spoiled part of my mood, and so I decided to tweet about it to vent a little.

I’m not a performative or public complainer, and I don’t use Twitter as an outlet for airing grievances, but I was really fed up by this woman’s assumption that my body was somehow a learning experiment or educational diorama, or somehow available to her for entertainment. I realize that it might sound like an overstatement to some people, but having someone touch me without my permission just fucks with my day and sense of privacy and personal space and sends me into a k-hole spiral of wondering what unconscious signal I may have given to indicate that it would be OK, even though I know there isn’t one. I just happened to find myself at the unfortunate end of an uncomfortable encounter that slightly ruined my day.

What the fuck is wrong with people?

I don’t know! For some reason, this has been happening to me a lot lately. Women, especially women of a Caucasian persuasion, have been stopping me to compliment my hair (which is OK) and then taking a smile or “thank you” nod in response as an invitation to get handsy with my hair (which is not OK!). In da clurb, on the street, and once, horrifyingly, at work. Maybe people don’t understand the difference between asking permission and assuming permission, or assume enough privilege to think that it’s OK, when it’s not. It’s many things—really rude and inappropriate, for starters—and makes me wonder what kind of home training a person has (or doesn’t have) that makes it seem OK to grope a grown stranger’s head out of curiosity.

I also can’t figure out WHY they want to touch the bun—to see if it’s real? Hard? Soft? Full of candy? No idea. I’m a person of mixed race, and people often take my ethnic ambiguity as an invitation to ask all sorts of prying, personal questions about my heritage, family structure, whatever, and these are things you learn to take in stride because annoyance doesn’t pay the bills—I can spend my time annoyed at stuff like this, or I can spend my time getting bylines and getting paid and being able to afford having various quorums of lady friends over for Sunday dinner, which is what feeds me and helps me grow and is way more important in the long run. But I travel a lot for my job, which means I go through TSA a few times a month, and they always, ALWAYS, finger my necklaces, pat my assortment of bracelets, and finally, smush down my bun with their gross flappy plastic gloves. And it never feels like anything less that a violation that must be endured to get on with my day and my life. These strange little encounters that I’ve been having feel the exact same way.

I have some theories about why it might be mostly behavior exhibited by white American women, but I don’t want to generalize because my friends know how to act right and my mother is a super Southern white American woman, and I’ve never seen her touch someone in a way that they might not like, and if she were present when any of these women made a grab at my head, I can picture her stopping them mid-air with a quickness that would be viewed in cinematic slow-motion because Mommadeluxe is amazing and she don’t play when people try to mess with her kids. But it did not happen once while I was in Norway, which might be the whitest place I have been in recent years, nor in any of the other vast assortment of countries I’ve visited over the last few years.

BTW, plenty of people of all colors and backgrounds have asked me to touch my hair, and I have no problem with that, even though I think its a liiiiittle bit weird. Like, how have you not touched curly hair before??!! But, like, just be cool and ask. Maybe the person whose hair you want to stick your hungry little hands into will say yes. I once let a Swedish guy who asked me about my hair play with it and give me a head massage (his idea!) on a beach in Mexico while the sun was coming up, which sounds very creepy, but I assure you it was not. It was peaceful and relaxing, and he was super gracious and kind, and we parted ways on the best terms for two people who will likely never run into each other again.

Lesson learned (if any)?

To be quicker on the draw when I see topknot fetishers approaching? IDK. In hindsight, I wish I had said something to her. Usually, when I see people going in for the fondle, I lean my body backwards, just slightly enough to get out of the way while making eye contact and shaking my head “no” until they drop their hand. Then I just continue the conversation as though nothing happened, which usually dispels the awkwardness, preserves my dignity, and keeps things from getting to the point where we would have a conversation about boundaries and discretion and the appropriateness of racial tourism.

I resent that I have to have a conversation about it, which is why I didn’t tell this woman about herself, because it would have been weird and a bummer to have that talk in the presence of all the other lovely partygoers—plus Kehinde was in earshot, and I just decided to bounce rather than stay and get into it. Again, I resent that I don’t have the luxury of never worrying about how my behavior is perceived in a public place, or other people’s comfort level and thinking about these things, and that the experience of a modern woman of color in 2014 is one of enduring other people’s idiocy and self-righteous behavior and being the bigger person, almost all the time.

Just one more thing.

Save Nori! And Terio. I worry about them both so much.

Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor in New York.