I’ve had to say this in church, at a so- called multicultural, we are the example of inclusion and God’s kingdom come to earth one. “Don’t touch my hair.” After compliments, hands uninvited reached forward to finger my tresses. “It’s so soft,” she said. Her response revealing much and undoing more of a potential relationship than she could ever imagine. Her ten digits reached forward and created a boundary.
She would never get that close to me again. We would never see eye- to- eye. Because she was inspecting me now, examining my hair as if it was completely strange and foreign and intriguing. It’s not.
It’s just hair, same as hers though a different texture. And it is hair seen for four hundred years in America. So, why the surprise, the intrigue? It is no mystery. And why does she still not feel the need to ask, “May I touch your hair?”
Because her tilted head is bewildering to me. She doesn’t really see me as a human being. Because in America, there is a history of inspecting African bodies during American slavery on auction blocks. Because her touch in this way triggers that ancestral, deep in my bone, drilled into my head memory. “Don’t touch my hair.”
It is a necessary declaration, a reminder of the change in my position, that sadly needs to be stated again and again. It is a portion of my Emancipation Proclamation. My body belongs to me. I am and will remain free. These attempts to touch my hair are more than finger pricks but little deaths, small entanglements, bondages, links fo chains.
It is habits like this one that have yet to be unlearned by so- called white people who are not really free of their strange desire to oppress, to lay claim to other human bodies. Some are able to hide it in their speech, but the body memory of oppression and dominance lives on. It is acted upon when they reach out without thought for repercussion to touch hair that doesn’t belong to them, to violate personal boundary. It is not merely a bad habit but the strange character of whiteness.
And this would not have come to mind if not for the pictures of Executive Director Sally Hazelgrove of Crusher’s Club touching the hair of two African American young men. It is made worse because the organization is funded by the National Football League, which has recently come under fire for its partnership with Shawn Carter as persons believe it circumvents the social justice work of Colin Kaepernick. With school scissors in hand, she is cutting off their hair, their locs. Hazelgrove shared the pictures online and one was captioned, “And another Crusher let me cut his dreads off! It’s symbolic of change and their desire for a better life!”
The pictures have since been deleted but when asked by The Washington Post about cutting the men’s hair off, she responded, “I did not think about the ramifications.” And therein lies the problem. African American hair has long been viewed as problematic, difficult and unattractive– by European Americans. In fact, it is only a problem because these beauty inspectors say so. The natural hair that grows out of African American heads has been used to determine academic performance, gainful employment and other social success rates, which is why so many women chemically straighten their hair or wear wigs. Still, the leader of an organization that serves African American youth, picked up a pair of scissors and touched a nerve.
Hazelgrove shouldn’t have touched his hair because it implies that she defines beauty, that her kind of beauty determines a “better life,” that this “better life” is based on appearance, that his mere appearance is troubling and starts on top of his head, that goodness and beauty go hand in hand. The scissors in her hand represent a total disconnect from African American culture, its heritage and the history of defiance against socially colored white hands. That’s what she is touching. Hair and habits are not synonymous.
That’s why race is all wrong– because it would have you and I to believe that hair, threadlike strands growing from our head and face, arms and their pits, legs and toes, hair that we pluck from our noses– determines who we are. Seriously? My hair doesn’t speak for me and if you touch it, you will never really or truly or fully hear from me. So don’t touch my hair.