Hi, I'm Liz. No, You Still Can't Touch My Hair

Hi, I'm Liz. No, you still can't touch my hair.

Since I stopped chemically straightening my hair in 2007, I've been surprised by the number of people who've felt that they have the right to put their hands on my head and pet me. I've written about it--and occasionally joked about it--for the past few years. Well, Monday morning I woke up to my Blackberry buzzing because friends were sending me a CNN article that quoted and linked to "No, You Can't Touch My Hair," a piece I wrote in September 2009 about a particularly disturbing incident at Los Angeles' Griffith Park pool:
"...a woman, a white woman, approached me, her hand extended toward my head. "Ooh your hair is sooo pretty. Can I touch it?"

I immediately leaned away out of her reach and said, "No."

Her response? A shocked and outraged, "Are you serious? I can't touch your hair?"

"No, you can't," I replied. I guess she's never seen my #donotpetmyafro hashtag on Twitter.

Indeed, she had the nerve to look confused and offended as she asked, "Why not?"

Really, lady? You want me to explain to you why I don't want you to touch my hair? Let's see...

Because you're a STRANGER.

Because I'm not an animal in the zoo.

Because this is my body and I don't have to let anybody touch any part of it, EVER, if I don't want to.

Because my black ancestors may have been your ancestors property, and had to smile while they got touched in ways they didn't want to, but I am not YOUR property and never will be so you'd best move your hand away from me."
I didn't actually say any of that to her in the moment. I simply told her no. I was polite but firm--I don't feel that I have to allow people to experiment on me, or have a cultural experience when they decide they want to have one, or whatever that woman thought she was doing.

The CNN article only included the last thought about slavery. Not the context and not the woman's response, which was to first rant--in front of her child--"I'm a nice person and I try so hard to be nice to THEM, but I'm tired of trying to be nice to bitchy black women."

Then she continued griping, in earshot of my sons,
"All I wanted to do was touch her hair. What's the big deal about that? She should be happy I asked to touch her hair."

I received a lot of email from women thanking me for what I wrote, because they've had similar experiences, but I've also received a lot hate mail for saying that the incident had anything to do with race.

At the crux of most of the anger is that I connected what happened to the cultural legacy of slavery. I guess I could've related it to Jim Crow instead of slavery--but the larger point, which I know is not popular to talk about, is that there has long been a historical and cultural expectation in this country that black people must meet the demands or whims of white people. After all, it wasn't so long ago that saying no to a white person could get a black person beaten or killed. Some might say that, depending on where you live, that's still the case. Or, at least, there are serious repercussions for doing so.

I watched The Color Purple a couple of weeks ago, and today I realized that the reaction of the woman at the pool reminds me of this scene where the mayor's wife asks Oprah if she'd like to be her maid. Oprah, pretty bluntly, says no.

Of course, everything's not exactly the same between the two situations. I didn't swear at the woman at the pool and her husband didn't run up to slap me. But her shock that I refused to let her pet me matched the shock of the mayor's wife when Oprah declined the chance to be her maid.

Some of the emails I've received remind me of the crowd that gathers around Oprah towards the end of this scene, yelling at her. I've read that a) I'm a racist bitch that wants to see racism in everything, b) the poor woman was just trying to be nice and give me a compliment but I'm ungrateful, and c) my husband probably hates me and spends his time f*(&#@g white women to get away from me.

And those are some of the nicer emails.

I get that some people don't believe asking to touch a black woman's hair is racism. I also understand that some folks don't think that what the woman at the pool expressed after I declined her attempt to pet me is racism either.

I said it two years ago, and I'll say it again now--the way she flipped out and referred to me as a "bitchy black woman," the way she said I should be grateful she even noticed my afro...I strongly believe those things are rude and racist. And yes, I do believe asking to touch a black woman's hair has roots in racism. People may not intend to be racist, but there's a larger context, sometimes subconscious, that goes beyond the mere action.

Given the racial climate in this country, I don't know why I'm surprised that so many people seem to feel that I should've just acquiesced to this woman's so-called "good intentions," and allowed her to feel my hair. However, let me be clear: while my parents raised me to be an advocate for racial unity, they also taught me that I'm inherently noble, and that I deserve respect--which means that no, you still can't touch my hair. Please don't ask.


nick said…
I definitely think it was racism - both the demand to touch your hair and the abusive comment afterwards. If you reversed the situation and it was a black woman wanting to touch a white woman's hair, would the white woman be happy about that? Probably not. So why should you be happy about it?
Emme said…
Thank you so much for providing context. The writer of the CNN piece should be ashamed. It is ironic that the people that wrote you upset you said it was racist, were such racists themselves. You seem like an awesome person, please continue to hold yourself up high. Thank you again for this piece.
b. said…
Two snaps in a circle, Liz.

I saw that snippet yesterday too and was like, "wait a minute...let me see the context again." Of course, "context" is elusive to so many people.

I figured you'd get hate mail. Sigh. I am glad that CNN at least posted the direct link to the post that they pulled the quote from.

Love today's reply to it all. I admit that I've invited some to touch my hair, usually during a moment of in-depth conversation about it in an attempt to get them to understand. That only happens in the context of the conversation...random strangers can't just put their hands on me all willy-nilly.
This is Leila of Black Girl with Long Hair (http://bglhonline.com). I'd love to re-post this on my website!! I think the context is definitely missing and needs to be heard! Please email me at blackgirllonghair@gmail.com
Nicole said…
It was definitely racism. Her asking and her crazy reaction afterwards. I don't think you were in the wrong in the least. Black hair isn't community property.

At least she asked though. I've had people just take it on themselves to put their hands all in my 'fro without even asking. Most have been apologetic when I move away and ask them not to touch me. But the fact that they saw nothing wrong with laying their hands on a stranger is a big problem.
IKnowWhatImTalkingAbout said…
Whoa! The context really changes everything! You are being made to sound like some kind of monster in the CNN article and all over the blogosphere... they definitely need to publish a retraction or something!
TiffJ said…
One of the cool things about the article on CNN.com is that it lead me to this and a couple of other insightful blogs! As a Black woman who wears her hair natural, I completely understood the underlying context of the article (even when it did fail to be more in-depth) and the stories that were referenced and had to weigh-in on my own blog. Because I've experienced similar reactions from folks, when I've denied them access to my hair... for them to tousle or pet it, like I'm some anomaly.
The comments after the article left much to be desired, so sadly, I'm not surprised you got hate mail. Rather than have to acknowledge a person's personal experience(s) dealing with bigotry and racism, and perhaps check their own culpability in violating someone else's boundaries and personal space, it's easier for folks to go tit for tat and trivialize the issue. Great follow-up post!
Carrie said…
Great post. I don't think wanting to touch is automatically racist on its own (though it's certainly rude) but in the context of what she said afterwards, it's obvious this woman was a racist. Yuck.

I'm a very tactile person and can't see anything pretty or with an interesting texture without wanting to touch it. This definitely includes hair, whether it's an afro or long straight shiny blonde hair or anything else that looks interesting. BUT, since I wasn't BROUGHT UP IN A BARN as my mother would say, I recognize that touching a stranger's hair is creepy and rude. I would never think of actually doing it, or even asking to do it.

It's amazing to me how many people go through life with no sense at all of what's appropriate behavior and what makes them look like a gigantic jerk. It worries me that there are still so many people whose entire social group and history of human interaction has taught them it's fine to spout racist abuse at a stranger who didn't let them do whatever they wanted. Racists don't exist in isolation; it takes a FRIGHTENING amount of acceptance from mainstream society for these people to remain unaware that they're doing anything wrong.
HAB said…
Thank you again for your post. I am an adoptive mom of 2 Ethiopian girls, and it drives me crazy that people reach out and touch their hair all the time. We keep it natural, and, yes, it is soft.

It is simply amazing the amount of people--from strangers to close friends--who just reach out and pet my kids. They have a few phrases they say if they don't want someone touching them, and they physically move away. But sometimes, people will come up from behind and touch their hair, so they don't see it coming.

Not only is it a violation of their space (and, just, creepy...if you are a stranger...why would you touch another person's child?!), it is treating them as "other."

With all the work it takes to keep 2 heads of gorgeous hair healthy, it is annoying to me that my friends will hear me say, "Yes, we had hair day yesterday, and it took me 6 hours to do hair." Then my friends just put their hands all over the girls' hair and don't think about everything we do to make it look amazing. They just want to feel it...and will say, "Wow, it just feels so soft, and I could sleep on it, etc." Talking about my kids like they don't understand what is being said.

So, thank you for bringing this to the fore and also for clearing up the context of the CNN article.

Love your blog.
the joy said…
I got excited when I read the cnn article and saw you linked! I already knew the story, and I think at the time I hadn't experienced anything from a white person where they just reached out and touched me. In the past, and even today, my hair is a curiosity to my friends, whose questions don't bother me because I know their heart.

But lately, as I have been trying to move up jobwise, I am convinced that I was denied a job because I went to the interview with my hair in a curly fro (see my twitter pic, @kaorijoy, that's how I had it). She said that they had a lot of corporate guests and they were more "conservative." I looked at the women behind the counter, and their straight hair, and realized I was not willing to change the way I looked for a job, especially so permanently. Yesterday I started my new job doing the same thing in a better location, and when I was interviewed the woman there had a straw set. I'll like it there.
Nicole said…
Liz, I’m sorry cowards are sending you hate mail. They're probably the same people who see nothing wrong with saying Malia Obama has “nasty hair.”

I’m stunned by the woman’s reaction, but not surprised. I’ve been natural for three years, and I’m used to strangers asking to “pet” my hair. You’re braver than I am, because I usually let them if they ask, and that includes a lady at a potluck dinner who asked to touch my hair after we had been eating finger food. Sometimes it’s genuine curiosity; other times it’s fetishizing and believing black bodies are public property.

Thank you for continuing to speak up despite the haters!
Stefanie said…
It was racist, but I completely agree that people are not aware of it. I think it begs to bring up the fact that (in general) white people see things differently than people of color, and are much less aware of the racist climate in this country.

I was having the discussion Saturday night with my boyfriend how we both love that more women are going natural and I mentioned your blog.

Though I may be considered a "white" woman, I identify myself by my Jewish heritage and I know that my family wasn't even in this country during slavery times. I think that by having this cultural identity I don't see things like the stereotypical white person, and I revel in the fact that I am a bit more aware of my surroundings in the United States.

Keep being fabulous, and I think even by having haters, you're stirring up a conversation that may not have otherwise existed.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for this. It was really thought provoking. I'm a tactile person like Carrie and definitely share the urge to touch anything pretty or interesting. (I don't think it is a rascist urge as it's definitely not limited to a particular group.) I wouldn't ask unless the context suggested it would be welcomed and definitely wouldn't do it without asking or be abusive if refused. But this post - and the comments afterwards- have been a good extra warning.
Tommeh Bell said…
I've had similar experiences with my hair as well. When I was wearing it natural and when I was wearing colored weave with my braids.

White people would come up to me and touch my hair and ask if its yarn. Or ask how I got my hair to stand up without any chemicals in it. Complete strangers! And when I would look at them funny they were swear I was the bad guy. I mean no accounting for the fact that it is a racists move to do that, you are a total stranger touching me!

What gives you the right or the audacity to touch me?! When did it became ok to just touch anyone you wanted?

I've always said it, stop letting them get away with this behavior. I don't and never will.
Jameil said…
LOLOL!! People are funny/crazy. I don't necessarily attribute most people wanting to touch my hair to race (though clearly black people almost never ask to touch my locks) but WHY DO I HAVE TO LET YOU TOUCH ME?!?!? It's exactly the same as a pregnant woman's right not to have her belly molested by every person excited to see a pregnant person. It doesn't matter your INTENT, I have a RIGHT not to let you enter my personal space and touch me! For real??? That this needs to be said is... actually it shouldn't be shocking so let's just call it annoying. Hi, I'm Jameil and no, stranger, you can't touch my hair, either.
reinitarica said…

You want to know something REALLY interesting? Everytime I try to add the link to your blog response today, the "moderater" of the sound off on the article DISAPPROVES IT!! As a writer, I really hope that you vindicate your article at least- this is basic english writing not to reference someone incorrectly, not even addressing the underlying incredulousness of the act.
Anonymous said…
Well.. I have asked other people if i can touch their hair. And it's not out of some sort of racist roots, I honestly and sincerely just love hair, like all kinds. It's just mega pretty. I do find it justified in your response as the woman just didn't want to keep her hands to herself and probably acted as if she were doing you a favor by touching her hair. Stupid woman. Rock on with the fro! :]
Respect Black said…
Loved this post and the previous one!

"The CNN article only included the last thought about slavery. Not the context and not the woman's response, which was to first rant--in front of her child--"I'm a nice person and I try so hard to be nice to THEM, but I'm tired of trying to be nice to bitchy black women.""

Ha... The classic presentation of the white woman as the wronged party.

"Then she continued griping, in earshot of my sons, "All I wanted to do was touch her hair. What's the big deal about that? She should be happy I asked to touch HER hair."

Ha again... "I'm doing her the favor by showing MY DIVINE interest in her at all"!

"but the larger point, which I know is not popular to talk about, is that there has long been a historical and cultural expectation in this country that black people must meet the demands or whims of white people."

This right here IS THE CRUX of it all. In a society that has spent centuries other-ing the features and attributes of Black people it is absolutely ridiculous that those Black people should have to be maligned or questioned in any manner when they reject the notion that we do not exist to be learning tools for the ignorant. It is flat out not acceptable for any stranger to approach ANYONE and expect that they should be allowed to invade someones personal space to satisfy their whimsical need to "learn" something "new".
Matt said…
First of all, BOO CNN! Secondly, it's obvious that the woman's reaction was racist. No person needs to let anyone invade their personal space. As far as hair-touching being rooted in racism, I can respect that as being true in many cases, but certainly not all.

This past year my wife had shoulder surgery, and the situation forced me to become her personal hair assistant. Since we're an interracial couple, people were intrigued to see this white boy handling a flat iron and debating Motions vs Lusters.

All of that being said, one thing I've noticed throughout our marriage is that white people are generally afraid of talking about race because they are afraid of offending someone. Then when they finally do, their fear often causes them to screw it up anyway. My point is, when white women found out I was doing my wife's hair I was bombarded with a ridiculous amount of ethnic hair questions. I didn't know half the answers... my 2 months on 1 head doesn't make me a hair expert, but it became obvious to me that curious white women felt more comfortable asking me questions than asking someone with the actual hair. That's kind of messed up.

I know that many of these women recognized their own ignorance in the subject and they just wanted to educate themselves... which in the end is a good thing. Personally, I don't see a problem with someone asking about your hair. Likewise, I don't see a problem with you telling them they can't touch it! Thank you as always for your discussion Liz!
Mikie said…
The CNN article is how I found my way to all of your posts (including the one that I commented on yesterday). I do agree that without the context, the quote that they used misrepresented the post. I enjoyed all of what I read yesterday, and today's post as well. I can't fathom death threats. That felt silly even typing it. Someone actual threatened you over your blog? I'm disappointed in the world, but hope that you keep doing what you do. I really enjoy your writing.
Anonymous said…
The thing about the climate we currently live in is that people have conveniently shelved racism for illusions of a "post-racial" era. The truth is however that racism now takes the form of unconscious white privilege. The lady's subsequent rant once you declined her is evidence of this - you should be honored that she has "validated" your existence by admiring your fro? -__-White privilege amongst many other phenoms are residuals of this country's history. Post racial is a fallacy when exchanges like this are still a reality. It is unfair to expect every black person to be a cultural ambassador.

Continue to exercise your right to maintain your personal space.

"Massa day done" is what they say in my country.
Sharon said…
Your story from the pool brought to mind a time when I was young & enjoying beach with friends, when some strange dude asked one of the young women in our group if he could touch her breast. The answer obviously was no, and he was offended. He just wanted to "feel it, not bother" her. It's bizarre to me that so many people don't understand that you can't touch a stranger, anywhere. As the white mom of an Ethiopian girl, I've had to tell people not to touch her. Because she is a child, nobody asks first, either.
Phyllis said…
I'm white, and I recently touched a black woman's hair. I didn't ask first. The situation was a little different, but not so different that I think I'm off the hook. We meet at a race amity conference, where we were both presenters; we attended each other's workshops, allowed ourselves to be vulnerable during a frank discussion about race, and made a promise to keep in touch. We both felt the potential for a deeper friendship. So as we hugged goodbye I expressed my feelings of affection by stroking her hair. She wears her hair straightened, and this was not about curiosity or wanting to touch something that had an interesting texture. It was simply an expression of what I was feeling, without so much as a moment's thought about how it might affect her. I did not detect any reaction, nothing that would have clued me in to the inappropriateness of my behavior. But for several nights during the following week I had dreams in which she hovered on the periphery of the action, looking at me but refusing to speak. After the third dream I figured I must have subconsciously picked up on something that needed resolution, and I sent her an email asking if she wanted to tell me anything. The phone conversation that followed was painful for me and difficult for her. But in the end, because I was able (this time) to listen without getting defensive and she was willing to take the risk of speaking and to forgive me, the incident served to strengthen our relationship.

Here's the point I'm trying to make, and I'm speaking particularly to any white readers who think they're immune to unconscious racist tendencies: There is no way we can claim freedom from the brainwashing about race that this society has been dumping on us for centuries. It doesn't matter if we identify as a different ethnicity; if we look white, we've absorbed attitudes of white privilege. It doesn't matter if our families were not in this country during slavery times (mine weren't either - they came from Europe fairly recently); research has shown that immigrants pick up racist conditioning within a few months of their arrival. The reason white people are less aware of the racist climate in this country is that our institutions have done a great job of keeping us blind, and we are comfortable in denial. And any time we begin to think that we're more aware than other white people, we run the risk of making fools of ourselves and insulting people of color. The reality is that I should have known better than to touch a black woman's hair. I've been doing racial sensitivity training for many years. I even wrote a book about it. That phone conversation was so painful for me because I really hoped I had gotten to a place where I would never again do or say something that hurt a black friend. But that's slightly unrealistic, and I think that the work of achieving true racial healing has more to do with how we behave after we realize we've screwed up. We're afraid of losing our dignity if we admit we were wrong and apologize. But actually we stand to lose something much more precious if we don't.
Greg Bulmash said…
I am a white man, married to a woman of color, and she loves it when I touch her hair, but I'm invited. I've even written a piece on what white men need to know about Black women and their hair.


That said, unprocessed Black hair can be magnificent to touch. I'm just lucky that I have an invitation to do it (and am sometimes commanded to do it).

But don't always take the desire to touch it as racist. My 2 year old wants to touch everything. When humans encounter something new, they have an innate desire to touch it. That woman's response was obviously racist, but wanting to touch your hair... at least partially innocent.
Lotus Flower said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sunny Optimist said…
I don't think all requests to touch our hair is racist. I really don't. I believe people can be fascinated by something which they have no real experience with. HOWEVER. That woman which you had the misfortune to encounter? RACIST! Which her speech afterward clearly demonstrates. Would her comments have been the same if she had been refused by a white person with curls? Would she have even asked them to touch their hair? No, she would have admired and moved on.
So no, I don't think ALL white people asking to touch our hair are racist, but that chick sure was!!

ps: Love your blog. You're a witty writer AND you have a great head of hair! ;)
Anonymous said…
Hey Liz,

Your story is now on almost every black website.

I had to go through the hair touching thing at work. During an executive team meeting, 3 white co-workers touched my hair and I had questions like 'Is your hair real? ...I thought Black people's hair didn't grow..is it really really your hair.'

I reported the girl to the executive director because my manager was present during this incident and did nothing.

Let's just say that no white folk have touched my hair since then at work.

The executive directly apologised profusely.

Even my husband who is white was furious when I told him what happened at work.
Helen D. said…

I knew when I read that cnn post I read parts of that story somewhere almost a year and a half ago. That is very racist what someone who is a majority (a white person) feels offended, indignant and demands (as nick right above has said) because you said no. They have the same feelings and attitude you displayed right back and you end up being called the b word. Unbelievable. If a white person doesn't even ask other white people "Hey can I touch your hair?" of course they wouldn't have a problem with it. They don't want to understand anything. And when that white woman said that about you at the pool how she always so nice to those people...she needed to eff off! Its definetly racist when they want to pet you as if your an animal as you have stated.
Helen D. said…
One more damn thing since the whole cnn article was talking about black women's hair in the first place I saw nothing wrong with your quote. Nothing. Why? Because if white people feel so offended by being reminded of slavery and think that shouldn't even be brought up in the first place, then they are the ones not thinking about context-just like this cnn article. Again the whole article was about black women's hair-thats context enough to understand your quote. *sucks teeth*
Lotus Flower said…
Ugh, stuff like THIS is the prime reason I don't watch CNN or read their articles for the most part. They misquote, distort, and downright MAKE s**t up when it comes to facts and quotes.

I'll take Fox News over - nah, not that stupid.

I'm really sorry you're going through this Liz. What that lady did should NOT have happened (though I myself wouldn't have cared about someone wanting to touch my hair - as long as they ask. Just a matter of being courteous ya know?) and the fact that you're receiving a lot of hate from phlegm-brained people who don't know how to check sources is just sad. Keep that pretty chin up and know that there are tons more who've got your back - especially me!

Anonymous said…
I do not allow anyone to touch any part of my body without my permission. I don't know where hands have been. Hands gould have been in strange orifices prior to the request to touch my hair. Prepare to get scratched with fingernails, keys, pens, pencils, slapped, or pepper-sprayed if someone wants to "try" to handle my person. No discussion or explanation. Someone handles me, they get handled back until they learn. That's how that story will end.
Anonymous said…
My husband and I encounter this quite frequently. I have been natural for 3 years and he has had his hair loc'ed for 12 years. I cannot tell you the amount of times that white people have reached out to touch my hair or his, without asking.

My husband moreso than myself, has had to endure the most ignorant comments as well. One time when we were in a furniture store, my husband had on a Yankee's cap and his locs were hanging down loosely (they end at his waist). A white guy came up to us and asked him if he was wearing a hair hat like the show "In Living Color". We were both pissed. Rather than go off on him, my husband ignored him and he moved on. At other times, he's been asked if his hair was yarn.

With regard to your post though, I guess I missed the memo that stated that black people had lost the right to say no. If my husband was in line at Macy's and reached out to fondle some white woman's hair, he'd be removed from the store, or worse, arrested.

It is creepy and offensive to find a stranger touching you. Whether it be my hair or any other part of my body. This reminds of a time when whites were curious about black women's butts. Are we supposed to allow them to touch that without argument as well??

Hottentot Venus anyone????
Liz Dwyer said…
Y'all are awesome. I love you for sharing and will reply more in depth when I get a moment to not post silly posts about not touching belly buttons. And Phyllis, can I repost your comment as a post?
I remembered your original post and was surprised to see it taken out of context on CNN.

As for the people who are calling you racist? They need to get a clue.
Tamara said…
I am so outraged! Where to begin...1) How dare CNN misrepresent your quotes. 2.) How dare that woman have the audacity to assume it's her right to pet you. 3.) How dare the idiots accuse you of being racist then send you racist comments. That woman's shock and defensiveness over not being permitted to touch your hair validated your point.

You exercised your power to govern YOUR space, and that is the problem. A lot of people who have a history of being the oppressor take issues when we exercise our power.
dhenretta said…
This article, the responses, it's all ridiculous. The reason racism exists as prevalent as it does today is because of 2 things, either people won't let it go or they spend their lives apologizing for their race, it's 2011, get over it and get to living. We live in multicultural society these days and i think racism isn't as bad as i think most people would like it to be, the cry of racism is just a crutch for lazy, ignorant people. You want racism to end, then quit dwelling on it and join the 21st century.
RachelB said…
Thank you for your writing. I'm sorry that CNN misrepresented what you said, and I'm sorry that you've been getting hate mail. Two other bloggers I read regularly, who were also quoted in the CNN article, have also been getting swamped with hate mail since the article ran. It's really disheartening.
Anna Renee said…
I think I have the solution to this dilemma: If they ask to touch your hair say, "only if you let me touch your breast, or butt or something like that. Maybe they'll catch a hint.

Anna Renee

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