You Can Touch My Hair: What Were We Thinking?!

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Antonia Opiah

I was once caught off guard by a girl in a bar who felt the need to scream out: “I want to touch it! I want to touch it!” referring to the big Beyoncé blond curly hairstyle I was sporting at the time. As soon as she did that everyone in the bar turned to look. at. ME. I had all of a sudden become the object of everyone’s attention when all I had wanted to do was order a Chardonnay. The girl probably didn’t realize what she had done or maybe she did and didn’t care. I was too disarmed to say anything about it in the moment. It was one of those moments that hits you after the fact and everything that you want to say comes out when the person’s not there, so you end just saying it to yourself or a friend. One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that I can’t really let an offense go until I’ve told the person who offended me how I feel.

You Can Touch my Hair (YCTMH) was that statement. It was a way of telling those who have stolen a touch or asked for one how it makes me and others like me feel—like an object put on display. But I also wanted to use it as an opportunity to further understand why someone might think that act or solicitation is okay and why black hair is such a novelty. This hair-touching conversation has been going on for a while. It’s not new. But we’ve only been talking about it amongst ourselves. Maybe hearing the other side would shed some light.

However, an unexpected thing happened; YCTMH became that girl in the bar. And quite a few people told us how they feel. I read a comment where one person said the exhibit made her feel “sick to her stomach.”

Why the anger?

Images of our models reminded people of images of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, a South African woman encouraged to go to Europe for exhibition. She was displayed in both England and France because her large buttocks and elongated labia was a curiosity, something people of those communities hadn’t seen before. From 1810 to 1815 she was exhibited as a freak show attraction under the name Hottentot Venus. After her death her skeleton remained on display until 1974 in Paris’ Musee de l’Homme. The museum kept her remains, although out of sight, despite calls to return them home. It wasn’t until very recently, in 2002 were her remains sent back to her homeland after “much legal wrangling and debate in the French National assembly.”


Saartjie Baartman (pronounced “Sahr-kee”) is one of many instances of “other-ing” and exhibition blacks have been subjected to across the world and throughout history and no one wants to see it continue to happen. But was YCTMH really a repeat of history? Were our models put on display without having a choice or voice? Or was there power in the fact that they were extending this invitation on their own terms and with their consent?

A lot of of those who were upset with the exhibit also exclaimed, “Why do we have to educate them?” Explaining normal aspects of our everyday lives or even aspects of our history to non-blacks is something no one individual necessarily wants to do. Considering we’ve all pretty much been in America for the same amount of time, they should know us by now. I’ve often been put in situations where I have to explain my hair for sake of being polite to co-workers. The video below was basically my life for two years. But by way of being put in those situations, I’ve actually discovered that I really like talking about my hair. It’s something that’s beautiful and something that I’m proud of and I like sharing it with other people, hence Unruly. But that’s my choice. That’s my feeling about it. We, collectively or individually, don’t have to educate anyone about any aspect of our lives. But I enjoy doing so because people have done the same for me. Throughout my life there have been moments when I’ve been completely clueless about a subject matter and have probably asked some really stupid questions. But people tolerated my ignorance and informed me by answering those questions. And I’m a better person for it. So why not pay that forward?

Black hair is rare and special. I loved what image activist, Michaela Angela Davis said in our Huffpost Live discussion “… Black hair is magic. It has this ability to change shape and texture….” It’s not surprising that people are fascinated by it. We’re fascinated by it, which is probably why most of the people at the exhibit that were touching and talking and asking questions about hair care and regimens were black women.

The show goes on… what can be done?

You Can Touch My Hair is now over, but the exhibition goes on. Any time a stranger tugs on some unsuspecting person’s hair, a person is put on display. Any time the question, “Can I touch your hair?” is asked, a person is put on display. These barely noticeable encounters that happen everyday is the real exhibition.

People have asked: “You’ve started this conversation, so now what’s your solution?” You’ll find this crazy (you probably already think I’m crazy ;-), but YCTMH is the solution. The conversation that it started is the solution. We keep saying that being fondled hurts us, but who are we telling? Some of the people that are touching, especially those that are touching without asking, may be doing so out of some deep-rooted sense of entitlement. But we can’t apply that notion to everyone that’s touching or at least those that are asking first. For some, it really may be an innocent lack of knowledge—lack of knowledge about our hair and/or lack of knowledge that the question or the act of touching our hair may be offensive. We received this comment on our site:

Thank you so much for putting this out into the world. You really made me think about how I as a white woman view these issues. I have been guilty of asking black women questions about their hair and – one time – asking if I could touch it. The context there was that a black friend of my daughter’s was telling us about how her mom had just braided her hair. I asked a few questions about maintenance and then asked if I could touch it. She didn’t seem to mind, but thanks to your insights I don’t expect I’ll be asking that question of any black woman again because I really don’t want to give offense…

Although, our aim was more about shedding light on this topic and it’s weight versus saying that all women find this offensive or all women find it unoffensive, this comment illustrates a person reconsidering past and future actions because information that was new to her was brought to her attention. There’s power in the spread of information. And discussions like the one YCTMH started can help spread information. We need more of them, in some shape or form and they don’t only have to be initiated by people in the black community.

The part of this that really scares me is the thought that there are some people out there that have no interest in this topic, that have no interest in learning about other people or other perspectives. Those are the people, to me, that are most dangerous; the people that shut themselves off and never grow any empathy because they’ve limited what they’ve been exposed to.

You can or can’t touch my hair is not a conversation about hair. It’s much bigger than that. It’s a conversation about how we as “Hyphenated-Americans” all relate to each other. It’s about whether or not we’re taking an interest in or taking the time to learn about each other. That learning doesn’t have to come in the form of our event. It can come in the form of opening up a book or watching a documentary on YouTube. I like conversations because they allow for human connection, like the one Ty Alexander describes. But conversations have to be wanted by both parties.

Did we accomplish or learn anything?

So much has come out of the event and we’re still taking it all in. But here’s our initial thought on what we feel we accomplished:

  • We got the result we expected. We had a moment (four hours out of four hundred years) where we put aside the weight of this five-word question, a moment when both parties involved lowered their defenses, exchanged perspectives and learned from each other. This happened on a small scale. I would have liked to have seen it happen more.
  • We re-confirmed that the answer to “Can I touch your hair?” varies from person to person and even from moment to moment. Some find it demeaning. Some don’t mind it. The one thing I would admittedly have changed about the event was including some sort of “don’t do this to a stranger” and “results may vary from woman to woman” disclosure.
  • We re-confirmed that people are universally offended by being touched by a complete stranger and the event put a megaphone on that cry.
  • I think it’s safe to say that all who went to the event gained something from it. Those who participated, learned something new or gained a sense of empowerment by taking control of a situation that sometimes is out of their control. Those who protested the event had a soap box to stand on and now their passionate messages are getting circulated throughout the web via videos that came out of the event.

I won’t lie; I was a little bit sad about the response. To me it felt like people were only looking at the images and the hashtag and judging the event based on its “appearance,” which felt slightly ironic. And even after the event, when people tweeted and wrote about positive experiences, those tweets and posts and videos weren’t given any credence.

Some saw petting zoo in You Can Touch My Hair and I understand why. But I saw a cultural exchange. Any good conversation requires you to give up a little bit of yourself, by way of listening, by way of challenging your preconceived notions, by way of relaxing your defense mechanisms and making yourself just a little bit vulnerable. You Can Touch My Hair wasn’t about hair. Hair was an entry point into a larger conversation. Hair was the vulnerability that we offered up, a bargaining chip we hoped would get us what we really want—one brick on the bridge we need to really integrate as Americans. A few really meaningful connections were made at our exhibit and those connections may spawn new connections like them. And those connections might set the stage for the next generation to not have to answer, “Can I touch your hair?” or to willingly answer it but under new context.


We’ll be sharing the results of our exploration of this entire journey—everything from the events leading up to it, the event itself and the responses—by way of short video, which will likely be shared in July.

EVENT: We’re going to continue the YCTMH hair discussion but this time in a digital discussion panel via Google Hangouts that will be broadcasted live. And, again, we want all walks of life to participate because this topic is not just about us.

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An entrepreneur at heart, I founded Unruly in 2013 after spending six great years in advertising. I’m über lazy when it comes to doing my hair so I’m always looking for easy and quick ways to care and style my hair.

Articles: 191


  1. I’m the commenter you quoted above. I should have added in my original comment that I hope and pray my daughter’s friend didn’t feel pressured to say yes to me, and that after reading about YCTMH and watching the video you linked above, I feel I should go back and apologize to her and to every black woman I’ve had the hair conversation with. But then I figure they might think that’s a little weird and stalkery so maybe I should just pay it forward by educating myself in this area, which I will definitely continue to do.

    You said the video reflects your experiences, which is heartbreaking. All I can say is I’m truly sorry and that while we may be ignorant, I promise not all of us are condescending, privileged idiots like the white woman in the skit. I will do my dead-level best to make sure I don’t become that woman because that’s honestly not who I want to be.

    Great work you all are doing, and a fascinating conversation. Thanks for hearing me out.

  2. I was ecstatic when I first heard about this exhibition and wished I was in NYC instead of all the way here in Chicago. Then I saw all the backlash. And I am so tired of it! Damn. We will never be able to move forward if we can not celebrate our differences. I stumbled upon this exhibit on day 2 and I’m not sure if the women who were holding the “you can not touch my hair” signs were a part of this exhibit but from the looks of their faces they were angry and not having any of it! It reminded me of the angry black woman stereotype. But why? As a black woman with curly hair, I’m used to people wanting to touch my hair. Why wouldn’t they? Its vibrant, rare, unruly, bouncy and has a mind of its own. Its different from other peoples hair and sometimes its just that people want to understand different. I never have a problem with it. Can you please please please bring this exhibit to Chicago? I’ll even lend my assistance and help with the execution. We need more real conversational art exhibits like this. I believe it helps to break down the racial and cultural barriers that have held us hostage far too long. Thank you

  3. I think the blacklash from this is ridiculous. White people aren’t touching you without asking because they feel a deep-rooted entitlement to do what they want to black people, they’re touching you because they’re rude. I’m white, and would never touch anyone without asking – and so what if we want to touch it (after asking of course), it’s different from ours, and we’re curious about it. I have a full head of very soft, thick hair, and people touch it all of the time without asking me. It’s annoying, but again, I just chalk it up to some people having no personal boundaries.

    All I’m saying, is by putting things “off-limits” to everyone except other black people, you’re segregating yourself…and the next a crazy woman screams “I WANT TO TOUCH IT!” to you about your hair, slap her. Again, that’s not a white person thing to do, that’s an extremely rude thing to do.

  4. I am a middle-aged white woman with straight blonde hair. Years ago, when I was a young white girl with straight blonde hair, I often visited a friend who lived in a predominantly black neighborhood. I remember very clearly sitting on my friend’s front porch, and neighborhood children coming up to ask if they could touch my hair. Of course I let them, and they would laugh and try to braid it (it never held braids very well). What’s the big deal? People are naturally curious about things with which they are unfamiliar.

  5. Stop!!!Stop!!! How will others learn if we don’t teach them. I have the conversation in the video all the time. Guess what white people know all about buying hair. They do it all the time. I am happy to have this conversation with anyone. The more I have it the more people who are educated. THANK YOU UN’RULY!!!

  6. The innocence of children exploring the physical differences of their friends is one thing. I have been the object of white people’s curiosity and it is not something I relish. I would better appreciate this exhibition if the signs said, “You can touch my hair…..Can I touch yours?” Now that would have been a more educational cultural exchange.

  7. I get asked this allot too. It doesn’t bother me to be honest, but when people ask as if I came from other planet, I tend to get annoyed. I chalk it up to people just not knowing and if they are really interested, I will take the time to explain. The video was priceless. Shared it on Facebook. OMG, I was dying out laughing. So true!

  8. I am thrilled that black women are increasingly embracing their natural hair, but I don’t believe the focus should be on extending ourselves to white people, giving them the opportunity to indulge their curiosity. (Don’t they have enough entitlements?)

    Ms. Opiah and her colleagues should take the natural hair message on the road to high schools and HBCUs all over the country because we must move our young women away from weaves. These girls and women have embraced the European definition of beauty, and in the process, they are damaging their own hair. If these young women crave long tresses, then let’s show them how they can grow their own. Ms. Opiah says she loves talking about her hair. Well, share that love with young women who associate nothing but knots and tangles and ugliness with their hair.

    Young black women (teens) need to learn about how magnificent, versatile, and beautiful their natural hair can be. Spread the news about moisture, water, shea butter, castor oil, deep conditioning, co-washing, aloe vera. Show them the TWAs, two-strand twists, French braids, flat-ironing. Since they clearly want length show them how to grow their own luscious, long locks. Turn them on to the natural hair YouTube community. You’d be doing these young women a huge favor.

    (I’m over 50, 10 years natural. I was the first in my household to return to my natural roots, gray and all, followed by my mother and now my two daughters.)

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