You Can Touch My Hair
A throng of people gathered in New York City’s Union Square Park recently to touch black women's natural hair. (Photo by Donovan X. Ramsey)

A throng of people gathered in New York City’s Union Square Park on Saturday to touch black women’s hair.

It was all part of a two-day “interactive public art exhibit,” titled “You Can Touch My Hair,” during which people were encouraged to get up close and personal with various forms of black hair on live models. The event was put on by Un’ruly.com, a site focused on the black hair experience, and in it several black women allowed those gathered in the park to squeeze, tug and pet their hair.

“Black hair is unique,” wrote Un’ruly founder Antonia Opiah in a promotion for the event. “It requires different care techniques and routines. And in a country where we primarily see commercials for white hair products and magazines that mainly cover white beauty topics and TV shows that mainly feature white characters, we, and those curious about us, have to find information about our hair from other sources.”

The sight stopped many visitors to the park in their tracks and generated plenty of debate.

Black women, black hair, and unwanted touching

In 2011, CNN covered the phenomenon of black hair touching as something black women especially experience if they’ve chosen to wear their hair in its natural state instead of straightening it. Just months before that report, pop singer Justin Bieber caused a small controversy when he petted jazz musician Esperanza Spalding’s afro in front of Associated Press cameras after the Grammys, likely shocking the musician.

“It’s a real concern,” said Pariah lead actress Adepero Oduye, who was in Union Square Park during the event. “You just want to live your life. You want to exist as you are. You don’t want your existence to be ‘this thing,’ because we’re all human.” Oduye, who wears her hair naturally, says that she doesn’t often get requests to touch her hair, but does regularly receive comments — negative and positive — from people who find her hair to be worthy of judgement.

“As an actor, there have been things that people have said to me that have shown me it’s a real issue,” Oduye elaborated. “There’s something about natural hair. People feel as though it’s not necessarily sophisticated, or it puts you in a box or it’s seen as a novelty. I don’t understand it, because it grows out of my head like this. I could change it, but it’s who I am.”

Backlash against black hair touching event

Throughout the social media landscape and in the blogosphere, many took issue with You Can Touch My Hair for further fetishizing black hair by literally putting it on display.

Journalist Jamil Smith took to Twitter to write:

He followed up in another tweet saying, “History alone should make black people averse to turning ourselves into petting-zoo animals.”

Some black women say “You Can’t Touch My Hair”

Plenty shared Smith’s outrage. On the second day of the exhibit, after the event’s #youcantouchmyhair hashtag spurred another — #youcanTtouchmyhair — other women joined the exhibit’s models in the park to remind participants why they shouldn’t grab a stranger’s hair.

Their handmade signs bore messages including, “Do not touch my hair. It is part of my body” and “I don’t know where your hands have been. So, no.”

“I wanted to strike a balance,” Jenifer, one of the protestors, told theGrio. “I felt very vehemently against putting yourself on display like you’re some kind of a zoo animal. Black people have a history of being property in this country and countries all over the world. To me, this hearkens back to those days. We’re doing it this time. We’re making ourselves objects to be prodded, touched, examined and ogled.”

A curly-haired gentleman weighs in

Fernando Agudelo happened upon the event by accident and told theGrio that he understands the curiosity many people have with black ethnic hair. Originally from Colombia and of Latin ancestry, Agudelo straightens his hair, but says it’s naturally curly. “It was common that people wanted to touch it,” he said of his hair’s natural state. “It’s flattering when people admire something about you, but it depends on how they approach you. If they do it without you being warned or asked for permission, it’s not okay. It can be taken as an insult.”

While Agudelo enjoyed the spectable of You Can Touch My Hair, he had no interest in touching any of the models in any way.

“I’m not really into touching strangers,” he said.

Follow Donovan X. Ramsey at @iDXR