Once upon a time, a young black girl was standing in line along with her friends waiting to be approved by athletic trainers to play a sport for Linfield. She was laughing and all of sudden another one of her acquaintances enters the line. She greets her with a hug and, because she was so short, her hair was in direct sight and therefore at its utmost vulnerability. Her acquaintance then ruffled her voluminous puff ball of hair. She was taken aback by this, but she did not think much of it. A few moments later, a young man who was standing in the back of the line proceeded near the front to join his friends. On his way there he decided to stop next to the Black girl and ruffled her hair. He had a history of touching her hair and she reacted accordingly by telling him to stop what he was doing. Some may think that he stopped after he was asked to; however, it did not resolve that way. He decided to ruffle her once more for satisfaction. The young Black girl then told him to stop in a more irritated manner. He then laughed and walked away. Later that day, feeling her frustration building, she decided to post on social media that no one is allowed to touch her hair anymore. Putting her foot down, her Black friend commented, “I can still touch it!” with great pride. Although the young black girl had lots of love for her black friend she responded by saying, “Only when you are doing my hair, but other than that I cannot allow anymore exceptions.”
You may be shocked to read that situations like this actually happen here on the Linfield campus, but the truth is that it happens to me almost every day. In fact, someone ruffled my hair today — the same day that I am writing this blog entry. This is only an issue surrounded by race and culture not only because we make it so, but because Black hair is so distinct, transformative, versatile, and different from “the norm.” It creates an impression that it is somehow exotic, peculiar, and mysterious, when in actuality it is simply harassment, dehumanization, and violation of personal space.
Do you know that saying, “The sword is an extension of your arm?” As this saying is most relevant to the sword fighting scenes of Lord of the Rings, it is incredibly related to my hair being an extension of my body and culture. Being African American or Black on this campus includes playing the role of “educator.” I actually love when students ask me questions about my hair because I do know that it is special and unique; however, its uniqueness is also quite burdensome. Sometimes students like to ask with their hands and not their mouth. Some like to explore the mysteries of my shapeable hair. Although it is quite flattering that some are curious, it is also very intrusive to touch my hair, regardless of whether or not you ask.
Now the previous statement may be read as an opening to touch my hair when asking for permission. The effects of this permission to touch will actually cause more harm than good. As you would ask to touch a luxury car at an auto show, which is an object to be observed, some would ask to touch my hair. In result, my hair would be objectified and observed without ever thinking about how I feel. This experience is also the result of historical white oppressive attempts to objectify Black slaves and establish superiority by fetishizing and “othering” black hair.
Some may say, “No that’s not the case! I really do like your hair.” If your goal is to not objectify my hair, if I may be a bit blunt, then JUST compliment my hair. It can also be said that I may be getting too emotional about this matter but those who are unfamiliar with this experience would understand if their friends continued to touch their hair without consent even after they have told them not to. Therefore, in order to ease the curiosity of those who wonder how exactly I sculpt my hair, I will create a list of questions/comments that are commonly asked or said to Black women about their hair:
“How do you get your hair to stay down?”
There is a hair product specifically for laying African American hair flat, and it is called “edge control.” Once I apply that, I wrap my hair into a silk scarf and sleep with it overnight.
“How do you get your hair so curly?”
“Do you wash your hair?”
I am sure most human beings wash their hair, yes I wash my hair.
“Why do you wear a scarf?”
I wear it to be stylish for when I go to bed… No, I actually wear it to prevent my hair from getting frizzy before I go to bed.
“Is that a wig, or is that afro really yours?”
In reality: No, it is not a wig, this is my natural hair.
In my mind: Let’s see. If I am Black, and I wanted to wear my hair out naturally, I don’t think I would buy a wig to hide my natural hair. Well, at least they asked instead of finding out for themselves.
“OMG It’s so fluffy!”
Yes, thank you so much!
“Can I touch it?”
No thank you.
I have only mentioned a few of the many questions or comments that I am sure other African American women can add to. There is also another issue to resolve with this matter. It may be assumed that only non-black students touch my hair; in actually there are plenty of black students who have also touched my hair. There is a belief that only black people are allowed to touch my hair for the very reason that they are Black. That is not a fact. Other Black women may touch each other’s hair when they are styling it, washing it, blow drying it, and straightening it; however, it is not being done for pure amusement. In fact, Black women in salons or on the door steps of their neighborhoods that get together and do each other’s hair is the creation of a community and a unity of Black women through social interaction of kinship relations within the neighborhood; it is not an anatomy lab examining the wonders of Black hair and its deviance from the norm. Unfortunately, there are some Black students who may partake in this forbidden act because they feel entitled to do so. As I have mentioned that my duty is to play the role of “educator,” I will clarify this dilemma. NO ONE, no matter the color of their skin, is entitled to touch, squeeze, or ruffle my hair.
“What’s the big deal? It’s just hair!”
It is not just hair, it is me. It is an extension of my body and my culture and it should not be touched, ruffled, or squeezed for anyone’s amusement or curiosity. Stop and stare, but PLEASE DON’T TOUCH MY HAIR.
Jade Everage is a member of the President’s Diversity Advisory Committee and Co-President of the Black Student Union.