Last night, while I was trying to catch the bartender’s attention just a few minutes after last call had been announced, a girl I didn’t know wedged herself between me and the next partygoer and said, “I just love your hair!” I smiled, thanked her, and kept my eyes on the prize. Just then she asked:
“Can I touch it?”
Here’s the thing: anyone who’s had more than a few inches of afro-textured hair growing out of his or her scalp has probably had someone try to touch it. Sometimes they ask, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the request is made by another black person considering “going natural,” but more often than not it’s made by a non-black person who wants to treat you like a stuffed animal. It’s rude and weird and frustrating. Either way, dirty sweaty hands on my carefully sculpted naps is not a good idea, and more than anything, I have no desire to be pawed at by a stranger who thinks that what naturally grows out of my head is “cool.” It’s just not happening. So, I flatly told her no.
The funny thing is, this person was not at all interested in waiting for the answer to her own question. Her humid little hand was already only a few inches away from my hair by the time I even had the chance to respond, so the tail end of my “no” was punctuated by a head-to-toe bodyroll of hair-touch dodging. It was as if she had no intention of waiting for my permission — permission that she was certain she would get. And when she did not get that permission and noticed that my catlike reflexes kept her from getting what she wanted, she responded with a gasp followed by a “hmph.” Here was a perfect stranger who asked if she could touch my hair and got offended when I told her no.
I swear that my hair is not that interesting, but this is not the first time that this has happened to me and every time it does I have the same bothersome reaction: a pang of guilt and the need to explain myself. I’m not sure if that guilt comes from the sad faces of the poor, clueless souls who think it’s appropriate to want to touch another person’s hair because it’s “cool,” or from the part of me that knows I’ve just made it seem as though I have a racial chip on my shoulder and have instantly fulfilled the “black girl with an attitude” stereotype just by asking for respect. Therefore, I’ve become pretty good at quickly explaining why damp hands on my hair is not ideal while also throwing in the fact that it’s rather insulting to be objectified just because I am black and my physical blackness is fun to you. I’ve let violation lead to education and schooled every person who has ever tried to touch my hair on the proper way to behave. But not this time.
Maybe I was walking around with a current events-induced bad attitude last night, but instead of playing the racial understanding role, I decided to treat this girl as if she’d just said something completely ridiculous…because she had. I realized that, much like explaining how things work to a man who has just asked a woman if he can touch her breast and then balking when she says no, I could not be bothered to explain to another adult why my body belongs to me. When it comes to my hair, or any part of my body, if the answer is “no” that is something that you need to accept. Period. And I am not here to explain those basic facts of life to you.