The Roundtable: No, You Cannot Touch Our Hair

Talk of the "You Can Touch My Hair" art exhibit/social experiment dominated digital dis...

 photo youcantouch.jpg
Talk of the "You Can Touch My Hair" art exhibit/social experiment dominated digital discourse this weekend. The exhibit which placed three Black women with three different textures of hair in New York's Union Square Park with signs that read "You Can Touch My Hair" clearly strikes a nerve by looking at the strong reactions it stirred. But why? Three of our staffers discuss the project as well as its implications.

The Panel

Kimberly F. - Kimberly is the founder and editor of For Harriet. She's a Christian feminist trying daily to conceal her sophistiratchet. She's a recent Harvard graduate, and an Oklahoman.

Olivia C. - Olivia is a true cornfed Nebraska native and Chicago undergraduate studying journalism. She is a film and music junkie, believes Thursday night TV is the best, and Twitter is her kryptonite (@This_isMAB).

Yasmeen C. - Yasmeen Chism is a graduate of UNCG where she obtained a double major in African American Studies and Women’s and Gender studies.  Her current research interests include Performance Studies, Black Feminist Theories and she presently working on incorporating Sexuality Studies and Queer Theory into her work.  

Kimberly Foster: Before I knew anything about the "You Can Touch My Hair" art exhibit, I saw a photo.
Yasmeen Chism: I found out about it from a hashtag on twitter
Kimberly Foster: My first reaction was anger. Well, not so much anger as annoyance. How did you feel when you saw it?
Yasmeen: My initial reaction was annoyance. As a Black woman who wears weaves and my natural hair, I get so tired of my hair and the choices I make about it being public discussion.
Olivia Cunningham: I found out through Twitter as well. I initially thought this was some comedy event to be honest.
Kimberly: Yes! The premise seems really absurd.
Olivia: I just couldn't see it as an actual, serious and sophisticated thing, like, an art exhibit or something!
Kimberly: Yasmeen, you brought up a great point. Is it beneficial for us to spend so much time talking about Black women's hair?
Olivia: We shouldn't, but when it's been pointed out to you your whole life it does become a big issue
Yasmeen: In all honesty? I would venture to say that while our hair is important, I feel that these are the conversations that need to be had amongst Black women. Not with everyone else.
Olivia: I agree, Yasmeen! Honestly, at this point I could care less if white people or any non-black person is "curious." It's ours to discuss.
Yasmeen: The problem that I have with it, especially given my experiences in predominantly white environments, is the sheer OBSESSION that I feel white people have with Black hair. I actually spoke with my boyfriend, a white male, about this issue to see if he had similar curiosities that some of the people in the photographs exhibited.
Kimberly: The woman who devised the concept seems to think this type of exhibit will break down racial stigmas. What do you think?
Olivia: Nope. But it's a nice thought as always.
Yasmeen: When she [Anntonia Opiah, the creator] gave her interview, I noticed that she was in Paris. I wonder how her own thoughts on breaking down stigmas may be different because of her location.
Olivia: Good point about Paris.
Kimberly: I think the curiosity and the stigma is global.
Yasmeen: The only reason I mentioned location was because in the Huffington Post Live interview they wondered how this translates within the context of the US (North vs South) and when we think about what may be considered "artistic" in "European" taste might be considered grossly offensive in the context of the states.
Kimberly: Good point. Is this an art exhibit that got lost in translation?
Olivia: The problem is yet again this "breaking down racial stigmas" situation was set up by putting black women on display and others going "Oh! Well that's interesting." What did those people really take away from that? That's what I want to know.
Kimberly: And I actually understand the curiosity, but why do black women have to be teachers? Why do we have to sacrifice our bodies to teach these lessons?
Yasmeen: I think anytime Black women put their bodies on display we are going to liken it to other instances when our bodies were on display. What does it mean for Black women to occupy public spaces and be "inspected?" How do you think we would have examined an exhibit if there were Muslim women holding signs stating "You Can Touch My Scarf?” I think that anytime minorities who have been "Othered" allow for these types of invitations, there are going to be questions about the implications of what it means.
Olivia: Yes. I also find it a little discouraging that we're the ones who have to send out an invitation.
Kimberly: We did have to send out an invitation, but isn't offering better than having someone ask you? I'd rather say "you can touch it" than be asked "can I touch your hair?" I guess that's a nominal difference
Yasmeen: I agree that it is better.
Olivia: I agree it's better to have that position. I guess I'm just impatient about the subject. I grew up in predominantly white communities my whole life and I understand their culture as well as others. Why – after centuries – do they still not know about ours?
Yasmeen: The privilege of not having to know. Sadly.
Kimberly: And that's the crux of the frustration I think we're seeing from Black women. It's like "Really? This again?" HOWEVER, Black women are still learning about our hair. Isn't it understandable that non-blacks would have questions? Women send hair posts into For Harriet every week and a lot of them are about self-discovery. Or is that different?
Olivia: Yes, but should we spend the time letting them in on it? Especially when, just like you said, so many Black women still don't know everything about their hair. In Opiah's article when she mentioned one of her white girlfriends, she compared the curiosity to stroking a fur coat at Macy's?
Kimberly: Right! And that type of quote makes me think that perhaps this exhibit isn't doing what she wants it to.
Yasmeen: Which is a comparison that makes me so uncomfortable
Olivia: Again, in the end what does she get out of feeling a black woman's hair? I agree, the discussion is important but is it so critical that this woman HAS TO KNOW what my hair feels like?
Yasmeen: Exactly! what does this prove? So they can go home and say they touched a real dread loc today on a Black lady in the park, and she was holding a sign saying it was okay.
Olivia: Right! Now she can accept and understand black people because NOW she knows what a loc feels like!
Kimberly: So now I'm curious about why this exhibit has garnered such interest. A model who participated in the experiment mentioned that the it's been talked about on a few major media outlets. Why did this create such a stir?
Yasmeen: Because for once, Black women were embracing the curiosity that people had about their hair we weren't shooing them away, but inviting them with open arms. Ironically, after Michelle Obama's comments were referred to as the "angry Black woman" we see Black women inviting people to touch their hair. I think it was interesting how close both of these events were.
Kimberly: What 's the significance to you?
Olivia: Nina Simone said she didn't trust a black person in America who wasn't angry lol I believe it's justified. But I'd also hate to see a rift. "The Angry Black Woman vs The Inviting, Friendly Black Woman"
Yasmeen: These women in the park looked "approachable." They seemed happy. The model herself said she was okay with it. Rewind two days prior and we have questions about Black women and her anger and choice of words (referring to the First lady). Obviously these events have nothing to do with each other, but they were very interesting.
Kimberly: That's interesting. And both of these moments are expressions of power. So we all seem to agree that this was a bad idea. Do you think black women and non-blacks can ever come to an understanding on black hair? Do you care?
Yasmeen: Actually, I think I do care, only because they care so much. At the end of the day, my hair is still my hair but there is a small bit of me that has to comport my hair styles based off of what I anticipate I will encounter. I wonder how much of the "understanding" is an exoticism or fetishism that will never go away.
Olivia: The understanding should be it's hair and it's not yours. It's both not important (it's hair) and important to not touch because you don't know what that person's particular feelings and beliefs are (it's not yours).
Yasmeen: I think I am extra passionate about this issue because I currently live on Miami Beach where seeing a woman wearing her natural hair is RARE, and this weekend I wore my natural hair out. So between the looks and comments I received and this article, I have had it with hair obsession.
Kimberly: I personally don't care.I think black people spend too much time and exert too much time try to teach non-blacks about blackness
Yasmeen: That is true.
Kimberly: I'd rather us expend that energy on something else. Black folks always have to be cultural ambassadors. I'm over it.
Olivia: I respect that Kimberly. And I personally wish I didn't care either, but I'm not there yet. I agree with you, Yasmeen. I'm currently in my 10th transition month and the looks and comments are frustrating.
Yasmeen: When we think about what many have coined "the natural hair movement" and how that may impact the way that we view this topic. I feel like over the past 3 years Black hair has been an even bigger discussion.
Olivia: Yes, timing is everything! I think 90% of this movement isn't about learning how to take care of hair, it's learning how to accept our hair! I even have family members shaking their heads that I chopped off my hair!
Kimberly: Agreed. And back to something you said Olivia. Perhaps it's uncomfortable to have other people gawking while we figure it out for ourselves.


Model From "You Can Touch My Hair" Experiment Talks About Her Experience

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