A few hundred of New York City’s most gorgeous Black women gathered at Union Square for what the internet is now calling a public interactive social experiment on African-American hair. It was affectionately titled, “You Can Touch My Hair.”
I know you are gasping at the thought of total strangers (White people or otherwise) touching your precious curls that you’ve worked so diligently on all morning to ensure their place on your head. At least that was my original thought. As you watch the video above, you’ll see that it was surely a divided group of brown beauties. But what I left with that day might have been more important than what Antonia Opiah, founder of Un-Ruly.com and creator of the event, may have expected.
For the record, you cannot touch my hair (insert typical angry black girl face). Not now, not ever! Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t want you to touch me at all. I was a bit shocked when I realized that I wasn’t alone on this stance. By day two of the exhibition, word spread like hot cakes and protestors with signs like “you can’t touch my hair but you can kiss my ass” and “touch my hair with your hand and I’ll touch your face with my fist” stole the show that afternoon. But I’m big on human connections, so I allowed myself to digest a deeper conversation about our cultures, race relations and even self-esteem.
The bigger question for me became, when will Black women begin to see that our beauty lies beyond the coils, spirals and kinks of our hair. As I carefully listened to the counter-arguments that day, some said that they felt disrespected and even compared the action of someone touching their tresses (with or without permission) to the historic and unfortunate story of Sarah Baartman–a slave woman who had been exploited in a scandalous London freak show in the 1800’s.
All of that is just too intense for me to swallow and accept as my opinion. Those arguments were an extremely long stretch on what started as just an innocent, and in most cases polite encounter between two people.
This experiment was a success, despite those who criticized the day without even showing up for the debate (#SHADE). It sparked the light on a conversation that should to be constantly in rotation for women of color. What does my hair mean to me? Does my hair make me a better person? Will my hair stop me from being successful?
As I chatted with an elderly White woman, it was clear there was a disconnect. From whether our hair is dirty and hard, to the realization that sometimes we both spend the same absurd amount of time at the salon on Saturday mornings, that disconnect leads to assumptions and discrimination.
Her and I vowed to asked more questions. As silly as those questions may seem and regardless of what the outcome would be, we decided that asking was better than assuming. We walked away with a connection that took less than seven minutes of our time, but is now a story we will tell for years.
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