This week, Antonia Opiah, the founder and editor of the black hair site Un-Ruly.com, launched a temporary exhibit on black hair texture. Noting that non-black people have long held a fascination with black hair, and that she’d frequently been asked by total strangers if they could touch her head, she created “Yes, You Can Touch My Hair.” For two days, she invited anyone and everyone to come to Manhattan’s Union Square for the opportunity to — with permission — touch a variety of black hair. As Antonia explained in an op-ed for Huffington Post, the “Yes, You Can Touch My Hair” exhibit was an effort to “‘take one for the team’ and further explore the tactile fascination with black hair.”
But are projects like this helping or hurting black women, whose hair has traditionally been the object of so much fascination by whites? Is it another way for our culture to objectify and fetishize black women, or is it a step in the right direction? I spoke with Deena Campbell and Nicole McGloster – the Digital Editor and Editor in Chief, respectively, of VIBE Vixen (one of our fave sites!) — to get their thoughts on the campaign and what it means for black hair and black women.
Check out our chat, after the jump.
Nicole: Honestly, my first reaction was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is dope!’ Then I was like, wait. People get to gawk at black women and touch them?
Julie: Is it because you always have people asking to touch your hair?
Nicole: People do ask to touch my hair, especially when I was younger.
Deena: Well, unfortunately black hair is presumed to be abnormal in this country. But our hair isn’t exotic, it’s just normal hair. So if we can open the dialogue about it, it’s a win-win.
Julie: To be honest, my first thought was an across the board, “I DO NOT WANT TO TOUCH A STRANGER’S HAIR!” Like, that just seems weird and germy to me period, regardless of hair texture.
Nicole: Ha! I see which way you’re looking at it, [from the perspective of] being the toucher. I just wonder if they’d line up people of other races or ethnic backgrounds and touch their hair too?
Julie: I think like you said, Nicole, that it would be different if it was some kind of exploration of ALL hair types.
Deena: Now I’m not saying I would want someone to touch MY hair, but I think this serves as a “get it out of their system” movement for people who are always curious/wanting to touch.
Julie: But by making it just black women’s hair, to me, it just “others” black women. It plays on weird tropes about the exoticism of black women. But I can see what you’re saying, Deena, that on a practical level this could sort of demystify black hair for people who are totally clueless.
Deena: Exactly. This movement is particularly unique to me because I’m transitioning to natural hair, and to be honest, I don’t fully understand how to properly care for/style kinky hair. I have questions about what’s growing out of my head. So if I have questions how can I expect a non-black person to fully understand?
Nicole: Do the questions have to be on this type of platform? The signs? The standing outside with random people (potential creepers) touching them? Maybe if this was a forum, a panel, something a bit more controlled…
Julie: Yeah, I think on a personal safety level it freaks me out too. Because as a feminist, I already feel like strangers think they have more ownership over women’s bodies — and especially black women’s bodies — than is comfortable or safe.
Deena: Fair enough. I think we can all agree that touching a stranger’s hair is distasteful, but we’re still left with the curiosity about black hair. And how do we answer those questions? Would you ladies have an issue with this movement if there was no-touching allowed but just an honest and open dialogue?
Nicole: Kinda. I’m not even sure why black hair stirs up this much conversation. Is it truly for understanding, or to cater to society’s fetish over black women?
Julie: I think I would have less issue with it, yes. To me, the touch aspect definitely brings up issues of personal space. And it also, I think, like, dehumanizes black women — turning their bodies into a fetish object.
Nicole: Because you’re going natural, Deena, you have questions… but why do others? They’re not, most likely, going to get a weave or grow dreads. I’m just not sure why there’s so much importance on this dialogue.
Julie: I also think it’s one of those things that is kind of a weird slippery slope. A lot of people will say it’s no big deal, but I think it speaks to a larger issue of who feels they can access your body and your space at any given time. It’s weird to cater to other people’s totally shitty impulses.
Nicole: Hmm. That’s unlocking a whole new can of worms. Women, as a whole, are disrespected in the most public way. Add this to it? Yes, of course, random person, please come touch me inappropriately because you don’t understand me! Of course.
Deena: Well, I think the curiosity stems from commercials that are primarily for white hair products and magazines that mainly cover white beauty topics and TV shows that mainly feature white characters, etc. But, I think this exhibit channels the right kind of curiosity because it’s not exactly “inappropriate” because we’re giving them the approval to do so. If that makes sense.
Nicole: True. They did sign up for it…
Deena: It’s like saying, “Hey, our hair is different, but it’s still normal.” Touch it and learn why, so to speak.
Julie: I think it just sucks, though, like so many instances before, that black women have to do the educating for ignorant white people.
Nicole: LOL. I was just about to say that — ignorant. I think if you start with this exhibit, you have to do more. I think it’s really just baby steps. Experiments like these hopefully educate white people, so they can go back and tell their friends and families. And if enough minds are changed over time we won’t have to have these discussions.
Julie: Yeah, I suppose it could be a jumping off point to have people start questioning why they accept these notions of “white hair” as normal and “black hair” as a deviation from that norm.
Nicole: Well, you have celebs like Beyoncé who have bone-straight, platinum blonde hair in the media — which is what ppl think is the norm — so, well, viewers get confused. Like, hey, black girl, why is your hair like this and Queen B’s is like Gwyneth Paltrow’s? But that’s a whole other topic.
Deena: Our writer attended the event (she has dreadlocks) and she felt people were very friendly towards the models and they walked away more informed.
Nicole: Because it’s hair, Deena, do you think it’s a little less harmless? If it was like, an ass exhibit, would it be different? Because society certainly has an obsession with our asses. Mine is non-existent, but you know I mean!
Deena: Right. It’s just hair!
Nicole: But see, I equate it all to being the same. It’s a fetish with us, a fascination … and people should relax. I don’t know. I just want women to have the power back. No more ways for us to be gawked at and “stripped” because people have questions. Like, I’m over it.
Julie: I cosign on that. But I also see what Deena’s saying. And I think that this is where intent and interaction really have to match up. Both the people creating the exhibition and the people participating would ideally be on the same page.
Deena: I agree, I don’t think we should be gawked at, but if someone legitimately wants to learn about our culture and hair, why shouldn’t they be educated and touch it if given permission? Again, to me it’s just hair. This exhibit channels the right kind of curiosity. But perhaps next time let’s open it up to all races, so no one feels ostracized or discriminated again.
Nicole: I’m a black woman with relaxed hair and no (ass)ets. I don’t particularly understand why that would spark questions, but hey, to each their own. Hopefully the exhibit starts a dialogue and the Un-Ruly people get the results they were looking for.