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.
A Complete Stranger Bought My Friend An Upgrade For A Flight (Because Of Her Hair!)

Behold Kristi's hair. I wish I had a shot that wasn't cropped, but you get the idea.

Here’s the deal: My friend Kristi has a weave. It’s a straight, bra-strap length weave that one of her PR clients, a celebrity hairstylist, hooked her up with just for fun. Kristi isn’t afraid to experiment—she’s had all kinds of hairstyles in the past. For example, when I met her in 2007, she had gorgeous locs. She eventually wanted a change so a few years ago she chopped them off and got a short asymmetrical cut, kind of like the one Rihanna used to have. Then about a year ago she got the weave. I had drinks with Kristi recently and we were talking about what it’s like to make dramatic hair changes. I know a little something about that myself because I wore my hair in an Afro for about seven years before I started relaxing it again four years ago. When you go from one look to something completely different, it makes you realize just how much your image effects the way people treat you. Especially men.

“The dudes in suits talk to me now. They didn’t when I had locs. The privileges you get with long, straight hair are endless,” Kristi told me. I asked her to elaborate and the example she gave me is a doozy.

About a month after Kristi got the weave, she was at the airport, waiting to board a Virgin Atlantic flight from New York to London for work. She was standing in line at the gate, hoping to change her seat. Kristi said she wasn’t used to her hair yet and it was bothering her. She kept playing with it and tossing it, trying to get comfortable and she noticed that she had caught the eye of the gentleman standing in line behind her—a white guy that looked like a frequent business traveler. When Kristi got to the front of the line, she asked the agent if there were any free upgrades available. The answer was no so she stepped to the side to organize her carry-on. Next thing she knows, she was told that the man behind her had paid for her to move up from premium economy class to the upper class section of the plane!

“I thought ‘What do I do next? Do I talk to him?’ I sat right next to him on the flight and we chatted for a few hours. He ended up giving me his number,” Kristi said. The man was nice and not overly flirtatious with her at all. After the trip, she never spoke to him again.

Now, obviously she didn’t ask the guy why he upgraded her, but it’s safe to assume it was simply because she’s a pretty girl. A pretty girl with long, straight hair. He wanted her company and he had the means to get it. Kristi felt pretty sure it had everything to do with the hair because she flies all the time and nothing like this had never happened to her before. I didn’t even challenge her on that because as crazy as it sounds, I know she’s right. I had a weave once too. It was about the same texture and length as Kim Kardashian’s hair. Wearing that weave was a real eye-opener–I’ve never been ogled so much in my life. And I definitely don’t get those kind of stares now with my shoulder-length cut. Not that I miss all the leering on the subway.

Me and Kristi in 2007

But it taught me that before the weave, I was invisible to some guys and didn’t even know it. As Kristi put it: “Ideally every woman’s hair would get attention and be considered beautiful, but men love long hair. They’re programmed to think that long hair equals beauty, sexiness and femininity. They don’t care if it’s real, fake, pony, donkey or ostrich—they love it!”

She went on to say that the upgrade experience shocked her and also made her wonder if the “looks don’t matter” speech she heard growing up was a bunch of B.S. “Is everything about how you look and how long your hair is? If so, my mom was way off. She always told me it was about being smart, not pretty,” said Kristi.

I don’t believe that every man on the planet is shallow or only interested in women with long hair–I met my boyfriend with my hair in a messy bun. But generally speaking, cascading hair is considered to be more desirable. Evidence of that is everywhere (magazines, Disney movies, Victoria’s Secret catalogues, music videos) and has been since who knows when. No woman is immune to that bias, not even A-list actresses. When discussing her pixie cut with Elle UK last year, Michelle Williams said that “Straight men across the board are not into this hair!”

Although the long hair beauty standard is nothing new, Kristi’s story floored me so much that I just had to share. If you have an outrageous tale of your own, feel free to blab in the comments section below. And check out what short-haired girls have to deal with on a regular basis–it’s funny/sad!

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