The fascination with black hair has been leading to some very awkward and uncomfortable situations when confronted by strangers.
Some 200 years ago, a South African woman named Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman was bought and sold to a doctor who then displayed her at English freak shows because of her big butt. It was so unusual for them to see a black woman’s large posterior that Sarah, or “Hottentot Venus” as they called her, was gawked and prodded at by spectators who were fascinated by a black woman’s curvy body.
Now today, it’s the black woman’s hair that’s the new sideshow attraction.
Over the weekend, Selma director Ava DuVernay had a run-in with a man that didn’t understand that our hair isn’t a petting zoo. Ava was on her way to catch a train when suddenly, STRANGER DANGER! Random guy touches her beautiful locs and ends up getting arrested when his “curiosity” turns into a massive harassment scene.
She documented the incident on Twitter:
Missed train dealing w/ a man who touched my hair + when I asked what in all the hells he thought he was doing replied “Is this racial?”
Other women came over. Guy is screaming at all of us. Station police involved. It was a whole thing. As I see my train blink off the board.
Now he’s having charges pressed by another lady for harassment. Moral: DON’T TOUCH anyone uninvited. ESPECIALLY not this black woman’s hair.
Something that should go without saying now has to go with saying because these types of incidents have been occurring all too frequently. Either you or someone you know probably has dealt with having strangers gawk and outright touch their hair without permission. Just last week Dear White People actress Teyonah Parris had a similar incident, where her hair was treated like a fetish for an old man’s amusement.
Teyonah was kicking it with a couple of friends when the old man interrupted her tea time at The Ritz to ask if her hair was real or “an add-on.” Apparently, the man found them “stimulating” and revealed he had been suggesting for the restaurant’s waitresses to style their hair that same way. He seriously thought he was giving Teyonah a compliment when he essentially just said her hair turned him on.
She also documented the disturbing exchange on Twitter.
Having tea at The Ritz w/beautiful brown folk. Old Man walks over boldly asks me “Is that yours or an add on?!” Clearly referring to my hair.
I firmly state “Sir, that’s rude.” And turn to finish enjoying my company. He continues w/ “I told the manager he should have the waitresses wear that hair because it’s stimulating.” I say, “Excuse me?” He says, “I’m saying I like it.” I reply “That’s all you had to say. You like it.”
I turn back to my company to once again END this convo w/ my body language, and this man grabs my hair- I swear to Goodness- as he says “It’s stimulating!” His 40 something yo daughter is clearly uncomfortable as she sees my and the whole group of brown folks reaction and she goes “He’s trying to give you a compliment. C’mon Dad!”
I’m dumbfounded and in shock. You have objectified, fetishized, attempted to demean, and a number of other things all in one quick exchange. The sad thing is after all of my explaining to him about how inappropriate he was. I’m pretty sure he left as clueless as he arrived. Yup, it’s 2015. There’s levels to this type of #ignorance and #privilege.
Rewind back to 2011, when Justin Bieber mistook Esperanza Spalding’s glorious afro for a petting zoo.
Esperanza had just beaten the teen idol to win the Grammy for Best New Artist at the ceremony when the two were being interviewed. A reporter asked how they felt about each other when Justin blurted out, “I like her hair!” while simultaneously petting Esperanza’s cloudy mane. This went on for a few more seconds as he continued touching Esperanza’s “cool” hair. As graceful as she is talented, Esperanza simply thanked Justin for the compliment and answered the reporter’s question.
The singer’s opportunity to feed his fascination came two years later when three black women held an art exhibit called “You Can Touch My Hair.” The women stood with welcoming signs, informing strangers, that it was okay to feel their hair and get their questions answered.
For most women of color, being asked “Can I touch your hair?” (or the sensation of an uninvited hand already in her tresses) is irritating and uncomfortable, to say the least.
However, on Thursday afternoon in New York City’s Union Square, Antonia Opiah, founder of Un’ruly, extended an open invitation to all curious passers-by for an exhibition called “You Can Touch My Hair.” Opiah was exploring the “tactile fascination” with black women’s hair by gathering a trio of women with different hair textures and styles (locks, straight/weave and loose, natural hair) and allowing strangers the opportunity to fondle their follicles without the fear of being cussed out or slapped. Bedecked with signs reading “You can touch my hair,” the ladies made their hair available for two hours to anyone with the courage to take them up on the offer.
Due to its sideshow attraction feel, the exhibit wasn’t loved by everyone. Other women counter-protested with signs that warned curious spectators that invading their space may result in a beat down, or in Ava Duvernay’s case, may end up with an arrest.
At the end of the day, a black woman’s hair is just that — HAIR! Yes, it’s amazingly versatile, comes in many textures and can take the shape of everything from a bun to a sleek pony to cornrows to a magnificent afro. But, it’s still just hair, not a scientific wonder or a fetish prop for anyone’s entertainment.
Plus there’s a matter of respecting one’s personal space. If it’s not okay for random strangers to touch you, why in the world would it be okay to walk up to someone and start petting their hair?!
P.S. It’s not just hair…It is also not okay to run up and touch a pregnant woman’s stomach without her permission.
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