Why Can't You Touch a Black Woman's Hair?

Why can't you touch a black woman's hair?

QUESTION:
A black woman at work told a story of how someone touched her hair and how upset she got. She said, "Didn't they know you never touch a black woman's hair?!" I was nervous to ask her why with the fear of sounding ignorant -- So, why can't you touch a black woman's hair?

ANSWERED BY: Jessica

I want to preface this with a note… My answer comes from my perspective as a Black woman, but I don't speak for all Black women. Let’s get the more obvious answer to this question out of the way. It’s not ok to invade anyone's space or touch anyone without their permission. Black, white, brown, purple, female, male, queer, your peer, your employee, anyone.

Moving on…. Personally, I notice every day that I'm different than most of the people I encounter. I notice when I walk into a room, and I'm the only brown person (in Seattle, this happens more often than not). And, even though I'm an incredibly strong, proud black woman, sometimes my insecurities kick in, and I feel like I don't belong. Then, when someone points out my differences (even if meant nicely), it's as if that person just validated my insecurities of being different, and maybe...less than.

Black women have more diverse hair types than any other race or ethnicity. Yet, textured Black hair is still something our generation and previous generations aren't used to seeing in the media or in the workplace (I still get giddy when I see a Black woman become a major character on my favorite shows).

And for those who didn't spend a lot of time growing up around Black women, people of other backgrounds tend to find our hair to be "interesting" or "weird" or "so different!"

"Wow, your hair is so curly!" Yes, you can see this without touching.

"Your hair is so nice, is it real?" None of your business, it's on my head, I look amazing, leave it at that.

"Why is your hair like this, but my friend's hair is a lot curlier and can go into an afro?" Like any other ethnicity, not all Black women are the same. Not all Black women's hair is the same. To lump us all into one category is offensive.

The thing is, touching a woman's hair is a microaggression. Whether you meant it to come off as an insult or not, that's how it can be seen from our point of view (the definition of a microaggression).

Sometimes they're seen as microinsults (comments or actions that can subtly convey rudeness or insensitivity that shames a person's identity). Yes, we're different. Yes, we're often the only one in the room that look like us. No, we don't need reminders and, frankly, to be petted as if we're there for your curiosity.

And sometimes they're microinvalidations (comments or actions that subtly or unconsciously exclude or invalidate the feelings or identify of someone else). Such as being asked if our hair is real. Does it matter? If it's not, does that make us less than?

Here's what is ok to do instead of touching a Black woman's hair:

  1. Say, "Your hair is beautiful."

  2. Say, "Your hair is even more on point today!"

  3. Say, "You look gorgeous!"

  4. Say, "I didn't grow up around women of color and feel a little ignorant. Your hair is beautiful, and I'd love to learn more about it. Are you comfortable telling me why your hair is so different from my friend's?"

  5. Google the different hair types of people of color and learn more from the internet.

  6. Say or do nothing. Keep your opinions and hands to yourself, and admire from afar.

Return to the weekly column.

Jessica Eggert