Hair Sensitivity

12th May 2014

If you’ve ever been confused about why it’s bad manners to ask to touch black women’s hair, this video is a good education. In particular 1:12-2:36.

Also at 3:56 where Belynda Gardner tells the story of some random guy at a deli sticking his hand in her hair and touching her scalp with his fingertips. She’s super gracious about it, chocking it up to curiosity, but seriously? No, creepy dude. You cannot just feel around on my head without so much as a hello, ok? Yeeg.

14 thoughts on “Hair Sensitivity

  1. ranger

    I’ve had people touch my hair without asking, but only when it’s shaved very short. I know it’s a tactile thing, not really curiosity. Still creepy. Adults–keep your hands to yourselves!

  2. Martha

    Who are these people going around touching hair?! Are they the same people that touch pregnant bellies? It has never occurred to me to reach out and touch another human being’s hair that I am not already intimately familiar with, African American or otherwise.

  3. Amber Marlow, theAmberShow

    It was pouring rain when these girls got together, or I’d have been there. I’m half-black, and all of my friends know they’re allowed to touch, but when strangers reach for it, it’s way too weird. I have to yell at a stranger every few months. This issue reminds me of pregnant ladies and their bellies.

  4. Kate

    Thank you for this video. As a child, I was introduced to a neighbor girl who was half German/ half black. We were both three and I remember being fascinated with her hair and I finally reached out and touched it. Then she reached over and touched mine. We’ve been friends ever since, not close but always checking in on each other’s lives.

    I’ve never had an urge to touch anyone’s hair since then, except for friends of course. It is just another reason that it’s so important to expose our children to people that look or act or talk differently than them, when it is just pure curiosity.

  5. Melissa

    Kate makes a good point, I think. It’s pure curiosity, and educating kids makes sense. I’m white with red hair, and work with kids. The girls from different ethnic groups always want to touch my hair, and seem fascinated by it. They’re also fascinated by my skin, and I regularly get comments about how “weird” my hands and arms look.

    I had the same experience on a trip to Africa, with all the kids surrounding me, wanting to touch my hair. I felt a little like an animal at a petting zoo, but they were so gentle, I couldn’t mind.

    I try to use the experience with the kids to say something like, “It’s amazing how many different colors and shapes people come in, isn’t it?” Seems to me curiosity is a far better reaction to what’s different than fear, rejection, or rudeness.

    Although in fairness, asking to touch another adult’s hair weirds me out! I’m not sure how I’d react if an adult invaded my space like that.

  6. Michelle K

    My son attends 7th grade at a public middle school in San Francisco. His hair is red.

    Walking through the halls with him one day opened my eyes to how few people hear the message that touching someone without asking first is rude.

    Every third person wanted to touch his red hair. Super strange in San Francisco at a public middle school. Creeped me out, but he explained that many of the kids had never seen red hair in real life.

  7. Maggie Mason

    I have the same experience with strangers touching my hair or wanting to “boing” my curls, or discussing my hair loudly enough for me to hear, and I find it sweet most of the time. The interactions are usually affectionate, and curious, most often other women and children. (I don’t think I’ve ever had a strange man try to touch my hair, though it’s possible.)

    That said, I don’t draw parallels between my hair experiences and those of black women for this reason: I was always taught that my hair was beautiful just as it was. No one I love has ever tried to change it with hair styles that can are painful to produce or chemicals meant to change my hair’s texture to more closely mirror the hair of another race. No one has told me my hair needs to be different to make me beautiful, I have never cried or felt extreme frustration about my hair. My hair has always been a totally positive experience for me.

    That’s the point this video brought home that I hadn’t heard expressed openly before. For some black women, at least in the U.S., having someone touch their hair does not feel curious or positive, regardless of touchers intentions.

    Further, hair touching is intimate, a bonding experience between friends and a breach of etiquette between strangers. So regardless of the toucher’s intentions, people who don’t want others touching their hair should never have to defend why, or be made to feel that they shouldn’t be so offended because other people are just curious. It’s a charged issue. Strangers are curious about your paycheck too, but people would be irritated if they were stopped in the street by someone asking what they make.

  8. Heather B.

    I got twists. My coworker was curious. One thing led to another and he is asking, “Can I touch it?”. I honestly had no idea what to say so, I said yes.

    I was so uncomfortable. It was awful.

  9. malika

    I really appreciate you posting this video. I do have to say that calling this post “hair sensitivity” feels a bit minimizing. I am so happy you are highlighting this issue…but it’s not just about sensitivity it is about years of systemic oppression and historical ownership of black women in the US.

  10. Maggie Mason

    Malika, I had a really hard time titling the post, I’m glad you mentioned it. I didn’t mean to minimize, I was thinking of “sensitive” from the other direction, that everyone needs to be sensitive to and aware of this issue, but I see one can easily flip that.

  11. Tila

    I appreciate videos like this. When my mother was a teenager, she was made fun of for her curly/wavy hair. And although she at first tried to hide it, she was obviously disappointed when both my sister and I were born with curly/semi-kinky hair.

    Both my sister and I would get our hair chemically straightened, first because that’s what our mother wanted, and second because it’s all we knew. When we were in public (at a pool or water park) our mom would pull our hair into painfully tight ponytails and plait it so that no one would be able to see our natural curls.

    When I went to college I continued chemically straightening my hair and whenever my hair started regaining it’s natural texture, all I wanted to do was straighten it or hide it. I was so ashamed of my natural self. Even today, after 5 years of not chemically straightening my hair, I still feel flushes of embarrassment when it’s curly. While it’s slightly changing now, I look though women’s magazines, and all I see are women with straight shiny hair and I wonder if anyone will see my natural self as beautiful.

    It’s definitely ingrained in our culture that naturally curly hair is not preferred to straight, shiny hair. But I feel uplifted when I see videos such as these, or women being applauded for embracing their natural selves (whether it be wearing your hair in it’s natural state, choosing not to tan, etc.). Thank you for posting.

    PS. Oh, and by the way, I don’t mind at all when people ask to touch my hair. But this is definitely a personal preference. Mostly, I feel encouraged by the fact that people are interested.

  12. jill

    And then there’s the fascination of being a woman with no hair and people asking if they can rub my head.. or wondering why I would shave my head, or assuming I must be a lesbian because I shaved my head, or presuming I have cancer or that I’m brave for shaving my head. I have trichotillomania and so I almost have to shave my head. While I have a hard time not touching my own hair, I appreciate full stop the fascination, the tactile sensation and curiosity to touch hair but don’t understand why society has to be so weird about what people do with their own hairs.

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