“Hands off the Hair”
The other day, I saw an African-American woman wearing a T-shirt that read “Hands off the Hair.” This was at St. Therese Catholic Church in Leschi, where I go to the Sunday noon mass once a month or so. It’s a mixed-race congregation with a gospel choir and a piano and drums.
The woman wearing the T-shirt was in the choir, so I could see that she was wearing a T-shirt, but I couldn’t tell what it said until after mass was over, when I walked towards the Fellowship Hall to have coffee and snacks with my friend Dominica and her son Jack, and passed her.
I thought a moment, backed up, smiled at the woman, and said to her, “I love your T-shirt.” She grinned and said, “Thank you.”
What makes this interesting is that I’m a white woman, telling an African-American woman that I loved her T-shirt that read “Hands off the Hair”, and I said this in a way that made it clear that I know why T-shirts like that exist.
T-shirts like that exist because too many people, and by that I mean white people, will touch an African-American person’s hair without asking for permission.
That’s right, just touch their hair. And even if they do ask for permission, it’s still invasive because why on earth would you think it’s okay to ask to touch the hair of a complete stranger?
So when I told this woman after mass that I loved her T-shirt, maybe she grinned because she could tell that I know that white people do this.
I think I know why white people do this. And no, not all white people. But the white people who do do this, or have done this, I think it’s because we’re taught to be curious, because we’re taught very little about people of color – African Americans, in particular – and because we face very few consequences for our curiosity if our curiosity is misplaced or unwelcome.
I’ve never asked to touch the hair of a black person I don’t know.
Or have I? To prompt my memory, I’m trying to imagine if I’ve ever asked to touch the hair of any black people I know. I think of the black people I know. I can’t think of anyone. Wait. When I think of my friend Kathya, I can picture her locs and at the same time I have a tactile memory of how her locs feel.
So for a moment I’m thinking, oh my God, did I actually commit the social solecism of asking my friend Kathya if I could touch her hair?
Then I realize, the reason I know what her hair feels like it’s because we hug each other when we see each other at her storytelling evenings, and her hair rests against my cheek or my neck. That’s how I know. Oh thank goodness.
The only black person whose hair I’ve touched is my husband. The first time we met in person, we’d met online and had been emailing back and forth and talking on the phone for a year and a half. Back then, I had long hair, down to the middle of my back.
Kyle started picking up strands of my hair and looking at it, very closely, looking at it, very closely. I thought this was really weird. But I didn’t mind. I already knew that he was extremely nearsighted, so it sort of made sense that he would hold my hair close to his eyes. But why was he even examining my hair? The only reason I could think of was that maybe he’d never touched a white woman’s hair before, and he wanted to know what it felt like.
Now, since I’ve never had lots of people ask to touch my hair, and certainly never had lots of people touching my hair without asking, it’s easy for me to say that I don’t mind. And as it turned out, Kyle had touched white women’s hair before, but as he explained it, he hadn’t touched mine.
Well, after a moment or two of putting up with this weirdness from my friend Kyle whom I was meeting in person for the first time, I reached out and touched his hair. I figured turn about was fair play.
Now I’m so used to touching a black man’s hair, it’s weird when I touch a white man’s hair. Not that I go up to random white men and say, “Hey, can I touch your hair?” But I was in a play some years ago – “I Hate Hamlet,” in case you’re familiar with it – and at the end of my scene with this other actor, we kissed, and I would have my hand on the back of his neck, and I could feel his hair. And it did feel weird, touching a white man’s hair: straight, flat, un-springy.
When I told that woman after mass that I liked her T-shirt that read “Hands off the Hair,” we didn’t have a big conversation about it. I smiled at her, she grinned at me, knowing that I am a white woman who knows that there is a reason why African-American might wear a T-shirt like that.