A Case Of Art Imitating (Black) Life


Anyone who has ever harbored a secret desire to touch a black person’s hair got a free pass today thanks to the performance art piece “You Can Touch My Hair.” The exhibit was presented in Union Square by Un’ruly, a website devoted to the black hair experience. I watched as three brave models with different hair types willingly subjected themselves to stares, questions and yes, petting from random strangers. Controversial? Yes. Brilliant? Absolutely.

I don’t care if she has a massive mane of curls, a ‘fro, locs or a weave, at some point in a black woman’s life, she will experience unwanted hair touching from a curious white person. It’s a maddening experience, and it even happens to celebrities on live TV. The team behind Un’ruly, editor-in-chief Antonia Opiah and her sister and publicist of the site, *Abigail Opiah, view the exhibit as a catalyst to help fix the root of the problem: the widespread lack of knowledge about black hair. The piece was inspired by “Can I Touch Your Hair?” a popular blog entry that Antonia wrote for The Huffington Post. Antonia, who lives in Paris, was not present at the exhibit, but Abigail was there to oversee the spectacle. “This display is an experiment to see if, given the opportunity, will people actually come up and touch our hair and ask questions. It’s something that always happens anyway, so why not? I’ve worked at an all-white PR agency and I went to an all-white school–I’ve always been a topic of discussion. People have said things to me like ‘Oh my god, you only wash your hair once a week? How do you do that?’” says Abigail.


The models, from left to right: Malliha, Joliana and Jade

While I was there, I only saw two people that actually dared to put their hands in the models’ hair, but Abigail said that the show was attracting a diverse group of participants. “So far, it’s been an equal amount of black and white people touching. The black people come up and say, ‘Oh yes girl, I know!’ or ‘You look fabulous.’ There have been some men coming up, too. But the whole point of this is to get the dialogue going,” she says.


This guy isn’t shy.

I could talk for hours about my own experiences with offensive hair touching. I remember being in the third grade when a rowdy boy in my class came up behind me and gripped the pigtails that stuck out from the side of my head. He pretended to twist them, as if they were motorcycle handlebars, and yelled “Vroom, vroom!” I was a super-shy little girl so it was even more mortifying to be mocked and laughed at in front of my classmates. Little did I know that was only the beginning. I became a pro at answering annoying questions about my hair-washing habits when I was in junior high and high school. And as a grown woman, I’ve dealt with varying levels of white-coworker inappropriateness sparked by the Afro that I had for seven years and the down-to-my-butt weave I wore one summer. And there was my brief stint with braids last year. Oh, the stories I could tell.

Although I’m sick of the never-ending politicization of black women’s hair, I’m all for the “You Can Touch My Hair” exhibit. The Un’ruly team has taken something offensive and turned it into a teaching moment. Love it or hate it, the show provokes strong reactions from a wide variety of people. Isn’t that exactly what great art is supposed to do?

“You Can Touch Me” will be on display in NYC’s Union Square on Saturday, June 8th from 2 – 4 pm. If it rains, the show will be rescheduled for the same time on Sunday, June 9th. 

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

*Updated 6/11: A previous version of this post listed Abigail Opiah’s title as managing editor.
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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