Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Can I Touch Your Hair?

This past weekend, there was a live art exhibit entitled "You Can Touch My Hair," organized by Antonia Opiah, of un-ruly.com. It's sparked some debate in the past few days, which, quite honestly, has gotten me debating with myself about my thoughts.

The exhibit consisted of three African-American women with different hair styles and textures standing on a NYC street corner with signs that read "You can touch my hair."  And folks did!  Complete strangers just walked up to them and stroked and fingered their locks. (See the video) Sooo... is that weird? Odd? Okay? Offensive? Being culturally aware or insensitive?  I'm still coming to a conclusion.

The idea of it being an "exhibit" kinda doesn't set right with me and it's hard to put a finger on the reason why. But I think it, to me, seems to be comparable to a petting zoo. I take my kids to the National Zoo and there's a section where there are farm animals that you can touch and poke (okay, you aren't supposed to poke them) and the kids always ooh! and ahh! and hmmm! as they rub their hands over the cows and goats and sheep, fascinated by the feel and texture of the fur on the animals. And this "touch my hair" thing seems akin to that.  *The concept of the touching, not equating the women AT ALL to the animals (I know folks can get things twisted).

You can touch this hair since it doesn't belong to anyone right now.  (J. Flair Hair)
That said, I admit, I am one of those people who is very curious about people's hair and how they maintain and style it.  I ask folks what they put in their curly curls to keep them shiny and moist. I will inquire what's the right flat iron to get natural hair bone straight. I can't resist a baby's head of curls and I have been known to run my hands over a friend's locks. Recently, in fact, on two different occasions, I did ask a couple of women all kinds of hair questions.

When I went to get my hair done (a rare occurrence for me), the make-up artist in the salon had these long beautiful dreadlocks. As the subject was hair, we started talking about maintaining different styles and I did ask her a bunch of questions about her locks.  How long did it take to grow them to their current length, how does she wash them, how or if she would ever take them out. I'm always curious about locks because it's a style that I will never have; I don't think my hair will hold.

On another day, I met Jennifer from J. Flair Hair (Philadelphia) at her vendor booth at an event, with her weave products on the table, so this I took as the perfect opportunity to ask every question I had about weaves. Where'd the hair come from, how one selected a hair type, how did it get sewn in, how long did it last, how did you wash and style it. And she gave me the most complete, best answers, so much so that I was contemplating sitting right down in front of her and getting a weave myself. Every question I could think of, I asked her. But that was her business, that's what she did for a living. I wouldn't have just walked up to her and asked her if she had a weave and could I touch her hair.
Jennifer - yes, she has a weave and can sew one in for you, too!
So, yes, I am one of those people curious about people's hair.  Partly because my hair is kinda boring, to me, at least. It's a wavy mixed grade that poofs at the hint of 2% humidity, doesn't hold a style, and is usually in a ponytail or a messy bun.  Curiosity about anything different from what we are used to is natural. But when it comes to people, we've got to be careful that acting upon that curiosity doesn't cross the line into making people into a "thing" to be experienced, observed, and studied. And yes, where that line is is different for each individual.  Where is it for you? Would you have let people come touch your hair? Or would you have touched their hair?

I didn't see the exhibit, nor have I spoken with Ms. Opiah, but you can read more on how she came up with the idea for this exhibit in her own words.

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