(The Root) — I’m still not entirely sure what to make of “You Can Touch My Hair,” an interactive public art exhibit put together by Un’ruly, which actually encouraged people to touch the hair of black women and ask questions about it. Basically, three black women with fabulous hair — a poofy ‘fro, long locks and what appeared to be a lengthy straight weave — stood in New York City’s Union Square Park over the weekend and held signs that announced, “You Can Touch My Hair” to perfect strangers. It was an attempt to create a teachable moment from a very offensive aspect of black girl life, especially for ladies who are natural.
The model with the poofy hair, Malliha Ahmad, ultimately described the experience of allowing strangers to fondle her mane as “amazing” and “empowering.”
“I normally don’t let people touch my hair, but I had to step outside of myself and immerse myself in the experience of the social experiment of this art exhibition,” she told ForHarriet.com. “And I’m actually happy that I did, because it really stirred up a lot of stuff. A lot of people have been talking about this thing.”
The intent is noble. I appreciate these women for taking one for the team by letting strange hands fondle their manes and asking basic questions about how black girls do what they do. If this exhibit spares me from one more encounter during which I’m expected to play Black Girl Ambassador — explaining the ins and outs of black-girl hair to a curious stranger who feels entitled to an answer — then it’s all worth it. If someone provides proof that I was spared another stranger launching his or her hand into my fluffy or braided mane, I will happily write a large check to Un’ruly so they can take this exhibit on a national tour.
Still, I feel that the organizers missed the real opportunity here. It’s unfortunate that so many don’t know about the varied coils and kinks of black hair. But the primary issue in this discussion is the entitlement and privilege of others who think it’s OK to ask to touch it or, worse, just do so without permission. I wish that instead of offering to let strangers greedily cop a feel, the exhibition had centered around explaining why it is actually not at all OK, and further, how asking to touch or — again, worse, just reaching out and fondling — makes some black women feel, which is basically offended and less than human.
Obviously, it’s not the intent of the organizers to encourage people to think it’s OK to touch any random black woman’s hair. I get that. But just like how in the documentary Good Hair, there was that one teacher spending $1,000 on a weave, and then suddenly some very clueless people thought that all women were blowing their paychecks on weave, I fear that one small group of women saying for a day or two, “Hey, it’s OK, touch me!” will lead some people to think that it’s all right all the time. It isn’t.
Though I’m sure the exhibition’s organizers were annoyed, I actually have a greater appreciation for the three women who showed up to the park and staged a silent protest. One carried a sign that read, “I Am Not Your Sarah Baartman,” an allusion to the shapely South African woman who was paraded around Europe as part of a “freak show” exhibition. The two other women carried signs reading, “I don’t know where your hands have been” and flatly, “You cannot touch my hair,” with “cannot” highlighted in red ink. That’s not friendly and won’t get as much attention, but it’s a better representation of how the majority of black women feel when it comes to foreign hands in their hair.