Monday, April 7th, 2014

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.

12 Comments / Post A Comment

moosekitt (#268,613)

I'm a hungry handed hair toucher! :( I know it's weird, but I have a thing about hair. I do always ask first because no one likes having their hair touched out of nowhere. Also, no one likes it when strangers touch their hair! I learned this from people trying to touch my hair, otherwise I would probably be that weird, rude person.
I mostly stick to keeping my grubby fingers in my own hair, or my boyfriend's hair when it's not full of gunk. But some people have such soft or silky looking hair and I just want to touch it. Actually, I would probably pat everyone on the head if it were socially acceptable. It's just a nice tactile sensation, like touching silk.

Mama Penguino (#191,144)

Jenna – this happens to me a lot, too. I'm a white woman with super-curly, long-ish brown hair. If I get a good vibe from the person, I don't really mind the hair-touching, but I've never said no to anyone. Probably need a better sense of personal boundaries in order to keep grubby hands out of my hair but that's another comment for another day. I suspect people want to touch your hair because it's so beautiful and this has less to do with skin color than pure tactile desire but who knows? My daughter is Asian and I find myself stroking her hair all the time. It's all sikly and blue-black and thick. Enjoy your lovely curls – perhaps you could keep a bottle of hand sanitizer on you and make folks use it before touching??? :-)

SaraTonin (#268,671)

@Mama Penguino hand sanitizer, why? she doesn't like people touching her hair I think that was pretty clear

Mama Penguino (#191,144)

@SaraTonin It was a(n apparently bad) joke.

MarcusBrody (#264,541)

This is not always a racially motivated event. When I wear a sock-bun, I've had a certain horrible coworker (of my same race) grab the bun while saying "so cute!". SO HORRIBLE. I've had to tell her to never touch my hair. WHY DO WE HAVE TO TELL PEOPLE THE OBVIOUS?!?

SaraTonin (#268,671)

I am a white woman and I make hats that have toys and barbies attached. At the club I constantly have (exclusively)white, seemingly privileged women (and sometimes men) come up to me and squeal "I LOVE your hat" and then proceed to *touch it*. It takes a long time to make my hats and they obviously can be ruined by someone poking or squeezing the parts. I totally agree that it is a function of entitlement, since it is always the NYU kids or Bklyn granola trust fund types that do it. As if a perfect stranger's 'like' or dislike' judgement validates me as 'cool' or not…um…NO. I actually didn't ask you to validate me and could care a less….
I have learned the backward head movement as well, and believe me I WILL state my annoyance, which results in whiny little sad faces. Too bad. You need to tell people that what they are doing is annoying. Be glad that they don't come up and touch your FACE, which happened to me in a club last week…wtf

what in holy hell. If I went through daily life aware that random people wanted to touch my hair without permission I WOULD GO INSANE.

Wait, why don't people want to touch my hair? Is it not pretty enough?

lucy snowe (#242,337)

I have some experience with hair-touching, since I have for most of my adult life had very long, straight hair (I'm white.) But this story reminded me so much of people grabbing or rubbing my baby bump (even strangers), Or touching my baby's face (again, strangers– don't touch my baby! weirdo! I don't know where your hands have been.)

blech. Makes you never want to go outside. Or that's how I feel, and I don't even have the racial tourism aspect to pile on the mess.

cmf406 (#243,306)

I have super-curly white girl hair, and the TSA went through it at Chicago a couple of years ago. I Nearly Lost My Shit. WTF?! Such a violation. Still makes my tummy hurt to remember it.

People. Keep your hands off other peoples hair! Do Not Touch.

bureaucrab (#247,615)

Another curly-haired white woman who has had people touch my hair without permission (but never without a reaction, because GET OFF). I've found in my experience it's mostly a case of have-nots wanting to touch what they don't have (straight-haired people touching my curly hair, people with more texture touching pin-straight hair, etc). In which case, for most of those women yeah it would be partially race-based in that they are curious about hair they don't personally have. But the "reasons" don't matter – people just need to flat-out control their damn impulses. I see stuff all the time – sometimes on people – that I feel like I want to touch too, but I just DON'T because I am a grown-up.

The assumption by so many women that it's OK to just randomly touch a stranger because "we're all just girls here" is maddening.

Xenu01 (#244,135)

I really do think it's part of the weird racial dynamic between white women and black and mixed-raced women in this country. White women get that "I own your body" stuff, too- see, street harassment of all women, "why don't you smile more?", people adjusting your clothes without asking, etc. And then instead of being like, "yuck it sucks when other people express ownership of someone's body," they go ahead and express ownership of the bodies of women and men of color. I mean, WTF. Recent example in addition to this post: Cameron Diaz petting (!!!) Richard Ayoade's hair while talking about pubes.

Once I was at a bar and a guy bearing shots just appeared from behind me and put his arm around my waist. I was furious and demanded, horrified, "why are you touching me?!" My male cohorts laughed because, apparently, my indignation was funny. This essay reminds me of that feeling.

Nice section headings. I particularly enjoy, "what the fuck is wrong with people?"

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