If you have been natural for any length of time, you have more than likely had someone attempt to touch your hair. Strangers and friends of various races and ages seem to be intrigued by the texture, feel and all-around unexpectedness of black hair. Oftentimes this intrigue is expressed through a stray hand inching its way toward your kinky coils, with or without a request first.
Black women now have to add an extra body part to the list of things we refuse to allow to be controlled, mishandled and disregarded. We have to restore authority in black autonomy, while confirming that no parts of our bodies are on exhibit for white curiosity.
All of this is packed into the decision to restrict unwanted hands in our strands.
Solange has a new song directly addressing this topic, and the issue of blackness being touched and policed, called, “Don’t Touch My Hair.” She performed the hit earlier this month on Saturday Night Live, and it was four minutes and 36 seconds of melanin-filled magic, with black background singers and musicians joining her onstage.
Before the performance was even over, some took to Twitter to express frustration with the song. We have seen this before (think back to the performance of another pro-black song by another Knowles), particularly when the song is directed toward black culture, black identity and black listeners. One Twitter user commented that while Solange is telling them not to touch her hair, she should be telling her sister not to wear other people’s hair.
Black Twitter quickly addressed all of the things wrong with this statement—the first being the blatant white attitude toward content that is not directed toward them. “Don’t Touch My Hair,” and Solange’s performance of the song, was very clearly celebrating blackness and self-love of black characteristics and identities. Black Twitter concluded that these were “white tears,” reflections of white folks having a tantrum about being left out of a narrative, even though they can find representation (and control) in hundreds of thousands of other songs. Spaces that exclusively celebrate and praise black identity are important, especially those that specifically address aspects of blackness that have been or are still used as means of oppression and control. Black hair is burdened with public opinion and expectations, whether natural, treated or weaved.
Secondly, wearing straight hair, whether by altering natural hair or wearing weave, is not strictly European or an attempt to emulate whiteness. There is a Eurocentric standard of beauty that even those of us who have chosen to “go natural” are influenced by, especially when it comes to curly vs. kinky texture. This is from generations and centuries of being told that black features are undesirable. Conforming to that does not mean we are emulating whiteness; it means that we have been taught the same standards of acceptability and have the freedom to choose which we will decide to follow.
The saddest part is that many black people agreed that it is in some way contradictory or anti-black for Beyoncé to wear straight weave that is assumed to be emulating white hair. Many of us still believe that blackness can exist only in one stereotypical way; that natural hair means pro-black, while straightened hair means “trying to be white.” Seems as if we are as focused on including whiteness in spaces where it doesn’t exist as some of the very people we are calling out for doing it elsewhere.
The opening lyrics to the song are, “Don't touch my hair/When it's the feelings I wear.” The lines to follow are further expressions of Solange’s identity that she refuses to give up for social acceptance—her soul, her mouth, her pride, her mind—all things that have been silenced, regulated and abused by the powers that be, especially in this country.
This song is about a lot more than hair. It is about taking back the authority to be vocal about what we will do with our bodies, minds and identities. The lyrics are addressing self-preservation and the public promotion of accepting uniqueness and individuality in the face of being viewed as a monolith. It’s scary that there is any outrage connected to this empowerment. Solange is simply stating that her body, mind and soul are hers to control. How could anyone disagree with that?
This song has become an anthem—for women having authority over their bodies in their entirety, and specifically for natural-hair women who too often have to block strangers’ hands from reaching out to grab their hair. It's not just hair. “Just” notes a simplicity, and nothing about the historically disregarded black body is simple. Our hair is a part of our bodies, and no matter what we choose to do with it, we are bucking a long history of expectations for how it should exist on our beings.
Slave masters ranked slaves based on hair texture and forced many to wear head wraps as signs of subordination and poverty. Originating as embellishment and fashion in Africa, even this aspect of black culture was perverted to fit the dominant oppressive agenda. I have read many connections made between requests to touch a black woman’s hair and the disturbing history of human zoos and Sarah Baartman, another example of black bodies were gawked at, fondled and viewed as entertainment.
There is a subtle line between speculation and making a spectacle of, someone but I do not take every request to touch my hair as the latter. Even with strangers, I typically don’t have an issue with people asking to touch my hair, taking into consideration their intent and tone. Before I went natural, there were many aspects of black-hair texture and care that were new to me also, so I very much understand having questions when one sees full black Afros.
It is my personal choice to decide what I feel comfortable allowing to happen to my body. At a time when people of color and women are targets of disrespect every day, black women have double-duty work ahead of us to protect our beings. As is important with all types of consent, there must be an ask and a “yes” every time. We set the rules for our space.
Shayna Watson is a freelance style and beauty writer who can be heard saying “Natural hair is a lifestyle” at least once a day. A Pittsburgh native, she currently lives in a shoe-box apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y.—which is fitting, since she really loves shoes. You can check out her personal style musings on A Nu Creature and follow her on Instagram.