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@hairunruled and Antonia Opiah, What Were You Thinking?

June 12, 2013

No really, what the hell were you thinking?

Actually, don’t answer that. You’ve already told the world what you were thinking in setting up black women to be fondled by the public. I read your many explanations and justifications. I ruminated on them. I pondered, wondered, deconstructed, reconstructed and reworded. I went deep.

I’m telling you all of this so that when you read the sentence after next you can be sure that I have not misunderstood your actions, the intent behind them or the result you were seeking in any way. I am also not reacting out of anger and shock but rather cold logic and reason.

You did harm to the community that you claim to serve and your intent, no matter how noble, is irrelevant in the face of that harm. Further, the “art installation” and the reasoning behind it is both flawed and demeaning to the people you have harmed.

Here’s why:

  1. Your wording matters.

You named your installation “You Can Touch My Hair”. Guess what, people already know that.

Despite what people may believe, the words “can,” and “may,” are not synonyms. They have subtle but vitally different meanings. One is a statement of fact. When it comes to Women of Color, Caucasians know they can touch our hair and get away with it. They do so all the time. The other is permission, “you, Caucasian person, may or may not touch my hair.”

Having people put their hands in our hair while we are standing on the street isn’t a concept, it’s a fact of life. It’s the problem. What you have offered is a continuation of that problem. Continuing a problem is the opposite of a solution and it doesn’t even come close to a dialogue or the beginning of a respectful interaction. It’s just more problem.

At the very, very least you should have actually given the women you were using as exhibits the power of the word “may.”

People, especially Caucasians don’t usually feel the need to wait for permission when they reach out to touch the hair of a PoC they don’t know. They just do it. If you had used the word “may,” you would have acknowledged that WoC have the right to deny permission for others to explore our bodies for their own enjoyment.

  1. You reduced the women in your “art installation” to things and parts rather than human beings.

It’s not about their hair, not really. If it were about their hair, you would have just used hair that was not attached to people. It is, or it should have been, about the people the hair is attached to and how they are forced to deal with a society that both reduces them to a curiosity; a thing, and then admonishes them for not accepting that reduction of self. Yet again, you just continued the problem.

  1. You started out by dismissing the thoughts and feelings of those WoC who have to deal with this on the regular and happen not to agree with your acceptance of this violation of bodily integrity.

In your own words you explicitly point out and then reject the assertion that racism plays a part in the phenomenon of random strangers touching us.


“Blogger Los Angelista attributed the phenomenon to “racial superiority and privilege.” A 2011 CNN article quotes blogger Renee Martin who reasons, “it’s about ownership of black bodies more than it has to actually do with hair.” I found all that a bit extreme and likely written out of the anger and shock of their encounters.”  

Because, you know, having to deal with violations of our person isn’t enough, WoC absolutely need other women, especially other WoC to dismiss our feelings about and explanations of those violations as “extreme” and characterize them as coming from a place of pure emotion rather than perfectly logical desire to not be forced to accept strangers hands on us.

You thought it was cute and funny when the hair touching question was asked in French and as a result you conceived using other women to make a point.

Many, many, many other WoC don’t find it cute or funny ever and you not only ignore their point of view, you belittle it.

In other words, you take the standard tactic of those in a position of power and privilege and you turn it up to eleven. And trust me, honey, if you can afford to run off to vacation in Paris, you’re carrying a level of socioeconomic privilege that outstrips the vast majority of WoC in America.

  1. After thoroughly dismissing the voices of the most common victims of the specific thing you are attempting to make an example of, you went to the most common perpetrators and asked them their opinion.

So I decided to talk to some of my white friends about the matter.”

Yes, because in discussions on the bodily integrity of WoC it is the voices of White women that we should really be paying attention to. Or you know, not at all that! Stop it! What is wrong with you?

And what did your Caucasian friend say?

“The same curiosity you probably have at getting to pet a snake for the first time and assuming it’s slimy when in fact it’s quite smooth and lustrous. Or that uncontrollable urge to touch a fur coat at Macy’s. “Is it real rabbit?” and then you run the tips of your fingers through it and are surprised: “Oh, that’s not what I thought it would feel like at all.” So I’m not judging the snake or the coat, I’m just touching it for curiosity sake. I’m curious. Curious to know what your hair feels like since I only know what mine does. Curious to know why hair is so taboo, when I myself have never been raised to believe it was.”

I hope you told your friend that comparing PoC to animals, twice, is extremely dehumanizing and racist. I don’t think that you did that, but you really, really should have. I further hope you told her that it doesn’t matter whether she is judging the human being whose hair she is fondling but that she should use her eyes and not her hands.

After likely skipping those parts you go on to attribute this curiosity to the rarity of PoC. OK, well maybe. I mean, it’s possible that’s part of it. PoC aren’t, in fact, a huge percentage of the population and some people simply have never had an opportunity to touch their hair. But could you please not pretend that that is the only, or even the primary motivation behind it? And yes, you did put forward that pretense by dismissing the points made about racism and privilege earlier.

Hey, you know what’s a fun set of facts? Albinos are an even smaller percentage of the population and I have never felt either the urge or the implicit right to touch their skin. Transsexual individuals are an even smaller portion of the population than that and I’ve never felt it was acceptable to walk up and touch their genitals, or ask if I could do so, or event thought about asking if I could do so, because IT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE TO TOUCH STRANGERS.

Listen up lady, and I can’t believe I actually have to articulate this but clearly I do, rarity may contribute to curiosity but racism, sexism, and privilege contribute to violation. They are different things.

And that’s another flaw in your project and the sad justifications you keep pushing. You’ve completely misidentified both the problem the most beneficial result of that problem.

So what if White people are curious about black hair? Why is their curiosity more important than my bodily integrity?

Again, the answer, whether you want to admit it or not, is racism, sexism, and privilege.

Look, I get what you were going for. You were trying to give us this:



Sadly, what you actually gave us was this:


Of course, White lady, you can touch her hair. You are naturally curious about something different than you and because you do not see her as an equal, you feel you have the right to touch the most visible part of her that is different. Who knows, you might be curious about other stuff too. While you’re at it feel free to check her teeth and reach up under her skirt. After all, you’re just indulging your curiosity.

Or, in the land of the sane: PEOPLE ARE NOT FOR PETTING!

The really sad thing is, with just a little thought, this incident could have been artistic, empowering to WoC and inclusive of multiple points of view on the whys and wherefores of hair touching and bodily integrity all at the same time. Here’s what you could have done:

You could have actually made it about hair, as I outlined above.

You could have made it about both hair and the status of women, black and white by raising the WoC up on a stage or putting them behind a barrier of some sort so that the people who wanted to touch had to both become a part of the spectacle and had to subject themselves to a roughly equal level of scrutiny from the crowd.

You could have had multiple groups of women of various races wearing similar things and carrying similar signs. The observations on how women who are otherwise identical, except for their race, were treated would have been compelling and actually helpful.

You could have done a contrast between how things should be and how things often are.


Best of all you could have taken away both the permission and the ability to ignore the necessity for permission.



You could have done a lot of things that weren’t actively harmful to WoC. You could have taken the criticism of your “art installation,” and thought about it rather than defending it. You could have participated and thus subjected yourself to the physical violation alongside the women you used as art. Instead, you basically set up a Black Women Petting Zoo and then acted like you did it to benefit everyone, including black women.

Your motives are meaningless. You caused harm.

You could still apologize for that harm and, promise to never, ever do it again.

I doubt that you will but you really should.



4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ouroboros permalink
    June 12, 2013 10:19 AM

    One more point you may not have considered: Some people think that, by being willing to touch the hair of a PoC, they are demonstrating to the world just how non-racist they are. Because they’re not afraid of getting The Black! See how progressive they are? Be honored that this white guy isn’t too racist to touch your hair! /s

  2. Janet Brown permalink
    June 17, 2013 3:27 PM

    I like your cogent analysis. I remember one beautiful fall day in 1966 when left the security of my family for kindergarten (where my mother knew I would be the only child of color) my mother told me-Don’t let anyone touch your hair. Initially I didn’t understand her caution but merely agreed. That day during snack a little girl who was being being raised in a racist household called me the N- word and attempted to engage other white children in disrespecting me. . I then clearly understood my mothers cautions. I hadn’t allowed any of my person space, integrity to be violated and therefor her attempt at ‘othering’ of me could not penetrate. IN fact the other white children were embarrassed by the lameness of her attempt. At five years old I drew the parallel that by not allowing people to play in your hair, they similarly could not mess with your mind. All I could do was to feel sorry for that unfortunate child who had been taught the N word (which I’d never hear before) and didn’t even arrive in kindergarten knowing her ABC’s.
    I am thankful to people like you who understand the intricacies of positive identity vs. attention seeking social postures and the social and historical drawback of leaving oneself open to scrutiny as the ‘other.” I have never hear of thus Appia woman but she could do with a little less attention seeking herself and a whole lot more depth of insightful thought.


  1. #BlackLivesMatter: Conversations About Hair | Anti Racism Xenomporph

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