To the man who asked if he could touch my natural hair, there are two things I have always wanted to say to you:
“You made me more uncomfortable than you will ever know,”
I doubt that you can remember me, and that’s fine, because sometimes an encounter between two people resonates deeper with one person than it does the other.
In the Summer of 2014. I was newly embracing my Natural hair, and had just gained enough confidence to wear my hair out at work. I had anticipated extra attention because I knew my hair was different, and that it made people curious. Two hours into my shift that day, and most of my coworkers had already had their fingers embedded in my curls. I didn’t like it, but I had mentally prepared myself for it.
I was a people-pleaser (And at the core, I still am today). Because of this fatal flaw, I was willing to put up with my colleagues disturbing my carefully styled twist-out, and potentially damaging my hair just so I wouldn’t offend them.
I work in retail, so later that day when I saw you wandering with your daughter around our upper floor, I wore a genuine smile and approached you both. After a quick back and forth about our selections being “Too sexy” for your early teenaged daughter, you proclaimed that my hair was “AMAZING.”
I was truly flattered, but before I could say “Thank you”, the next words out of your mouth were, “Can I touch it?”
You were the first stranger who had ever asked to touch my hair, and while I had readied myself to be touched by my peers, I hadn’t been prepared for someone I didn’t know.
True to my conflict-hating nature, I hesitated just a moment before saying “sure” and tilting my head forward.
You petted my hair, and turned to your daughter.
“It’s so soft!” you told her, “Come on, touch it!” She shook her head awkwardly and you cajoled her some more, all the while, your hand was still stroking my head. It was like I wasn’t even there anymore. Finally, when she wouldn’t budge, you shrugged, said a quick “Thanks” to me, repeated how “Awesome” my hair was, and were on your way.
Here’s the thing;
I know that you asked, and I said yes.
I know that you had meant to compliment, rather than offend.
But that doesn’t change how I felt.
And I didn’t know how I felt right away. I just walked away feeling kind of sick to my stomach, but I didn’t have a word to describe it. I remember trying to force myself back into a work mindset, but my head kept going back to that interaction.
Finally I had grasped on the word “disappointed”. I was disappointed in myself for not saying no, and for putting myself in such an uncomfortable situation.
After some more time, I realized I also felt dehumanized, and I was really unsettled by that. I didn’t necessarily relate the experience to being treated like a dog, but more like a sheep. Something you don’t see everyday in the city; something not everyone gets a chance to touch unless on a farm, or a petting zoo. Either way, I didn’t feel like me in that moment, and that lack of me-ness lasted for a few hours.
And that is what I think you forgot; that my hair is connected to my body. That it is a part of me; a human being, a girl, just like your daughter. (Can you even begin to imagine how uncomfortable it might be for a young woman, regardless of race or gender, to stand there while a man she does not know, has his hands in her hair?)
What I have always wanted to ask you, was how would you feel if someone had done the same to your daughter? If while she was working, or just going about her life, a man approached her, and asked if he could touch her hair (And by extension, if he could touch her?).
Would you consider that to be inappropriate? Or would it only be so because she, like you, is white and her hair is considered “normal”. Do you believe people are entitled to touch things that are foreign to them, just because it satisfies their curiosity? If the answer is No, then why did you ask me? If it’s yes, then we’ve opened a whole new can of worms.
But now back to the beginning. I did mention that I wanted to say “Thank You,” and that is still true. This is why:
Thank you first, for asking, and not grabbing. (Although this seems a small thing, there are too many times where I have had co-workers just reach out and squeeze without notice or permission).
Second: thank you for giving me the confidence to say No. You pushed me into a place of discomfort, and I realized I never wanted to be there again.
When I went home that day, I vowed never to let someone touch me if I didn’t want them to, and this vow extended to the people I worked with. Yes, people were offended, and wanted explanations as to why I wouldn’t allow them into my personal space, but it got easier for me each time, and to be honest, the explanation varied depending on the day: (“Your fingers suck the oils out of my hair and dries it”, “You’ll mess up the style”, Or just “No, I don’t want you to.”). In fact, it became so normal for me to say “No”, and get a negative reaction, that it still has me curious as to how people can feel so entitled that they could get upset when told they can’t touch my hair!
So, Man Who Asked if he Could Touch My Hair, with my new found self-respect, if we were to meet again, this is what I would say:
… and I would say it with a smile. 🙂
~Comfy Girl With Curls