The “Can I Touch Your Hair?” Issue Makes Its Way Into Primetime TV

I’ve been hearing good things about ABC’s new show Don’t Trust The B—- In Apt 23 so I decided to watch it last night. I expected it to be funny–and it was. But I didn’t expect to see an all too familiar hair issue depicted so hilariously in a scene involving a black male character with an Afro. The episode is worth watching for that moment alone.

People need to keep their hands off of Mark's hair!

In the scene, one of the main characters, June, brings her friend and fellow coffee shop employee, Mark, with her to the Korean church she’s been attending. After the service, June and Mark hang around to talk with the pastor. A few minutes later, June leaves and Pastor Jin says to Mark: “Can I touch your hair? You look like Obama.”

To which Mark replies: “Uhhhh…I have to go the bathroom.” And abruptly walks away. I cracked up.

When this happens in real life, it’s frustrating and offensive. But when it’s portrayed in a tongue-in-cheek way on a sitcom, you have to admit, it’s pretty funny. I would love to know whose idea it was to include that dialogue in the script–was it the writers or the actor, Eric André, who is also a comedian? Either way, it was spot on.

Black women (and I guess men, too!) with Afros and locs have to put up with random requests like Pastor Jin’s from strangers all the time. It’s maddening. This subject came up at a panel discussion about black beauty that I went to on Sunday. One attendee with big, curly hair spoke about how awkward it can be trying to figure out out how to respond in those situations. You could avoid it altogether like Mark did or you could be blunt like Thembi Ford, who wrote an essay for Clutch Magazine in March called “No, You May Not Touch My Hair. No, I Do Not Feel Guilty About It.”

At the event, a fashion designer on the panel suggested someone make a t-shirt that says “Don’t Touch My Hair!”  I could have used a shirt like that when I was a child. I endured a lot of unwelcome hair-touching because I was too young to know how to deal. (You can read about what I went through here.) No one has tried to pet my hair in years, but I just got braids, so who knows. Maybe I should brace myself for the inevitable.

Has anyone ever asked you if they could touch your hair? What did you say? How did you feel? Has this ever happened to someone you know? Go ahead, blab  in the comments section below. 




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Girls Gone White

Photo: HBO

I used to work at a mainstream women’s magazine that tried very hard to be inclusive. We used to take great pains to make sure that the pages (especially in the beauty section) had a mix of women with different skin tones, hair colors and textures—because that’s what America looks like. We used a lot of celebrity photos and sadly, it was often a struggle to find red carpet shots of young black, Latina or Asian women sporting the specific trends we were covering. The new HBO show Girls is the perfect example of why it was so difficult.

The series is bugging the hell out of a lot of people because it features a group of all-white, privileged 20-something-year-old friends who live in New York City, but have somehow managed to avoid knowing any people of color. Even though I think most New Yorkers, myself included, have friends of all different backgrounds, there are people in NYC who roll in non-diverse circles. The writer and star of the show, Lena Dunham, must fit into that category because the story is based on herself and the people she knows. That’s why I’m OK with the cast the way it is. If Dunham’s never had a black girl in her crew in real life, the last thing she should do is write about one. It could be a disaster.

Despite the ethnic void on Girls, I’m sure there are plenty of viewers who will relate to the #whitehipstergirlproblems depicted on the series—HBO is banking on that. I just wish major networks would tell the stories of other just-as-interesting niche social groups, too. Say, for instance, black people that are part of what writer Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “the tribe that doesn’t get down with Tyler Perry, whose music choices tend to put us in places where there aren’t many black faces.”

More diversity on TV would not only be compelling, but it would cause a chain reaction throughout the media world. We would see a broader mix of TV stars in magazines, on talk shows and in advertisements. And those are all places that could use a lot more color. What do you think about Girls? Is all the criticism justified or overblown? 


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