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January 27, 2007

Hair Petting

The Angry Black Woman has been pursuing the hair petting issue for awhile.

It breaks down to this: white people feel entitled to touch black people's hair without permission, to ask them if it's real without preamble or reason, and to talk incessantly about it. Angry Black Woman says: don't.

This whole thing makes me cringe for two reasons. Firstly, I have a similar thing, which is that people make a very big and rude deal about my height in terms and in a manner in which they wouldn't make a big deal about the aspects of anyone else's body. No one would walk up to a woman with big breasts and say, "Wow, your breasts are BIG! What's your bra size?" People wouldn't even walk up to someone and say "Wow, your feet are BIG! What's your shoe size?" If they did, they'd be considered at least weird, and definitely rude and obnoxious. But it appears to be okay to walk up to me and say "Wow, you're TALL! How tall are you?" I never answer this question. I always explain that I don't answer and why. But no one EVER stops to think about it. Everyone ALWAYS takes immediate offense, as if my refusing to talk about MY BODY is somehow me deliberately insulting them. MY bodily dimensions, you see, are about THEM.

This being the case, it makes me crazy that when I first met Angry Black Woman I DOINGED HER CURLS. I got permission first, of course, but the fact that I did that to someone who SO OBVIOUSLY has hair that people touch all the time and talk about all the time in an obnoxious way makes me absolutely frustrated with myself. I even remember thinking briefly that I shouldn't do it. But I did it anyway. Being a good person, ABW forgave me and is still my friend. But that doesn't make it okay that I did it.

Sure, I've got other excuses. Such as that I NEVER do the usual black hair thing (I don't); such as that I definitely have a curly hair fetish that transcends race (I do) or that I ask to doing the hair of everyone with corkscrew curls, who usually are Latino or white, not black. Sure, all of that is true. It's even possible that ABW is the only black person whose curls I've asked to doing, since I've been sensitive to this racial issue since a very young age, and that I did it because she was my friend. Lots of excuses.

But then, nonblack curlyhaired people have a similar problem with people touching their hair. It's not necessarily a racial issue, but it's definitely a personal space issue. An issue with people thinking that because you have an attribute that attracts them, or repels them, or is simply different, that your personal space isn't as valid as other people's. It's a difference issue. It's a privilege issue.

It's like we're all a bunch of big babies toddling around grabbing things we've never seen before and putting them in our mouths. Maybe it IS hardwired. Maybe we really CAN'T help ourselves, at least not at first. I've had to deal with more of this than most people because I have both the multiracial thing (which means that there's nowhere I can go where people won't make a big deal about my race) and the tall woman thing, (which, ditto). But I STILL do it to others, even though I should know better.

But even if it is hardwired I think we can train ourselves out of it. The fact that I thought about touching ABW's hair before giving in to the impulse indicates that next time I might be able to stop myself before commiting an annoyance. Or that I HAVE stopped myself ever since before committing an annoyance.

I have a black coworker who wears wonderful, bright-colored scarves on her head. The scarves give me a great deal of visual pleasure and I usually comment on women's attire when I like it, but this is so close to the hair petting issue that I've hesitated, and I'm glad of it. Because, you know what? I comment on my other coworkers' CLOTHES, but not on what they do with their hair. Ever. I don't know why that is. Maybe I don't like the way they do their hair. But I've never commented on scarf-woman's CLOTHES, even though I generally like the way she dresses. It's her headscarves that get my attention. I'm not 100% on why that is, and until I am, I'm keeping my damn mouth shut and just smiling at her to say "good morning."

None of these choices are satisfactory, and yes, it's a pity we can't just go with our impulses. But people, you don't have any gods-given RIGHT to act on your impulses in public, so let's not act as if we do. If your impulse were to pet a woman's breast, no one would have to tell you why you shouldn't do that. If your impulse were to call a total stranger a "cunt", ditto. We control ourselves all day long. This is just another item on the list. Add it.

By the way, it's a good thing the height thing "intimidates" people, because I particularly hate being touched by strangers, and if ABW and I changed places, I'd be slapping people right and left and not being dignified, generous, and funny about it, like she is.


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bwa! I definitly think even folks who are very aware of such issues can forgive ourselves if we make a slip every now and then. And, after all, you did ask politely, as many people do. Plus, I am not immune to vanity, and having people admire and fawn over my curls makes me feel pretty ;) I guess it's all about the tone or vibe I get from people who do it. but yeah, those who don't ask permission are right out!

And you're probably right that it is hardwired to some extent. I often stare longingly at friends who have dreds and I really, really want to touch and play with them because I've never had a close family member who wore them. To me, they're pretty exotic. I do have to consciously stop myself from even asking, but the impulse is always there.

thanks, abw, but it's good to do a self-behavior check every once in a while.

about the hair petting thing; let's not forget that we're PRIMATES and express community by grooming one another. just like smiles originated in aggressive, teeth-showing grimaces, every gesture we use has many, seemingly contradictory meanings. i don't doubt that there's some weird impulse towards establishing intimacy involved in touching a stranger's hair.

it's just creepy to assume that you can establish that sort of intimacy without mutual assent.

This is one reason why I support mandatory service of some sort, not necessarily military. When you sleep next to people from all over America and work together, you get to learn all about hair, grooming, and all kinds of other stuff.

Thanks for this thoughtful post. I'm white, and my husband and I adopted a bi-racial son who has big blonde curls. White people are constantly touching his hair, telling him how much they "love" it (read: it makes them uncomfortable). My black friends touch it while simultaneously giving me advice on how to care for it. I frequently wonder how my son feels under all this grabbing. I do know that he is firmly against my cutting his hair, and wonder if that's because it's becoming part of what he sees as what makes him lovable. The fine line between making him proud of himself, and responding to other people's curiosity about him, is a difficult one. You've given me much to think about, and thanks.

cathy, i'm glad to hear that you've spotted "i love it!" as a sign of discomfort. i get that a lot, especially "i'm sooo jealous!" from people who very obviously feel no envy of me at all. it's a way for people to allow themselves to talk themselves out of their discomfort.

and it *is* important for people to have a way to do this--to talk themselves through their discomfort --- it's just not your duty, or your son's duty, to make yourselves available for other people in this way. i've met some really generous people who are aware of all of these issues and still lend themselves to strangers in this way: make themselves available as visual and sometimes tactile, aids for strangers' education. i can't do it, and obviously, it's up to your son to decide as he grows up whether or not he wants to do it.

if you haven't heard this already: you might want to be prepared for radical shifts in his thinking about this subject. when i was younger i used to love the attention. i took the "i *love* it!"s at face value, and thought that people really thought i was beautiful and exotic and desirable.

after years of hearing this and then being ignored as soon as people had said their piece to me, i became enraged. i spent enormous amounts of time thinking and talking and yelling about it, and joining groups and being on the internet nad organizing poetry readings about it.

so there were years of rage and examination. now i alternate between extreme annoyance--because i'm SO DONE with this issue and why can't everyone else be?--and mere boredom, in which i'm so over it, i can't even find the energy to be annoyed.

i expect there to be further phases after this one--possibly even generosity, although i'm not really a generous person.

just be ready is all ;)

It may not be a racial issue, but I only get the hair-petting from little children, who usually make utterly fascinated faces and grab it (I let them grab it - I'm not good with children and I'm glad to provide entertainment where I can). Oh, ok, and once a girl in a New York bar came close with this mesmerized stare and touched my hair cooing. Eli said she was on ecstasy. In any case, I wasn't annoyed, but that's because it happened just the once.


i think it's because you keep it short. sounds silly, but to get into a person's short hair you have to REALLY get into it--grab big handfuls or rub their scalp. whereas if it's long, you can touch individual locks.

there's a huge element of sensuality even in the whole privilege thing--in fact, that IS the whole privilege thing: that i can get my sensual kicks offa your hair with or without your permission.

and then again, it may BE a racial issue. who knows?

That link to the Hair Petting Game is making the rounds of the blogs as people collectively go “WTF! What black woman would feel any curiosity at all about how a black woman's hair feels? None would, yet there she was, acting like she was petting a llama for the first time. Look at your hair. Uh oh! Run! It’s an angry black woman!! AAAHHHHHHHHH! ...... So let’s all have a petting party. I’m sure I will offend someone today. ...

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