The “You Can Touch My Hair” exhibit in New York City’s Union Square was ridiculous. Black women stood in the middle of the bustling public space with signs that read “You Can Touch My Hair.” The ladies were beautiful, had welcoming smiles, lovely heads of hair and apparently they were armed with all the patience in the world too because they allowed strangers to stick their hands through their tresses.
The event was advertised as an “art exhibit,” but it was really more of a social experiment/traffic driver for the website (Un-Ruly.com) behind the spectacle. I’m not mad at an entrepreneur figuring out innovative ways to attract people to her business, but I am mad at black women being put on display like some type of freak show.
I have a TWA (teeny weeny afro) now, but back when I had my huge, glamorous Diana Ross-esque afro, people would often ask me questions about my hair and sometimes would ask to touch it. One person stuck his hand into my afro without permission, but for the most part people were very respectful when asking to touch my hair. Probably about 80% of the people who asked to touch my hair were black women who were looking for hair advice or product recommendations. I think I acquiesced more times than not because the interest was specific and not creepy. This exhibit? Not so much.
Black hair is a wondrous thing, so I get the interest/fascination, but this petting-zoo set-up is not the way. I have complimented strangers on their hair plenty of times, but I have never and I mean NEVER asked to touch a complete stranger’s hair. I might want to run my fingers through a girlfriend’s new weave or freshly fluffed fro, but not a stranger.
Putting black women on display and giving consent for strangers to touch them does nothing to improve cross-cultural dialogue. Should we put other types of people in public squares with signs, so that people can poke and prod them and ask (probably offensive) questions? What’s the immigration status of that Latino male over there? Is that white girl’s ample butt real? Is that Middle-Eastern looking guy a Muslim? * This thought must be accompanied by eerie music. * These are questions that might roll through a person’s head about strangers of particular demographics that they see on the street, but playing grab ass or asking to see a green card or asking any sensitive question with a built-in assumption would all be rude, socially unacceptable things.
Which is why I was so happy to see protestors at the “You Can Touch My Hair” exhibit with signs that read things like “I Am Not Sara Baartman” and “No, You CAN’T Touch My Hair.” Yes! The ladies holding those signs took the words right out of my mouth and I’m someone who has let a stranger touch my hair. The difference for me is a one on one organic encounter from a non-creepy person vs. being a display in an “exhibit.”
Copping a feel on some random black woman’s hair in the middle of a park doesn’t do much to forward multi-cultural relations, but it does put black women back to commodity/object status. I’m sure this “You Can Touch My Hair” shtick was a win for the website, but that’s seems to be the only winner in this situation.