Brow Beat

Playing With My Hair: Not OK

Singer Solange Knowles

Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Singer Solange Knowles went on a brief Twitter rant yesterday after getting a pat-down of her afro by the TSA at the airport. “I kid you not. This just happened to me,” she tweeted, including a link to a year-old news article about a woman who was similarly “humiliated” by a probing into the depths of her large hair for security reasons. As someone who has sported a medium-sized fro for about a year now, I know that things can get caught—and lost—in one’s hair: Stray bobby pins trapped in the contours of my coif have gone unnoticed for days on more than one occasion. So I can understand why the TSA may feel this is necessary. But another part of me completely sympathizes with Knowles’ frustration. When you’re wearing a fro, it seems, everyone wants to put their hands in your hair. And that’s not OK.

Over the last year, several strangers have decided to place their hands in my hair and grab it. I, of course, have no idea where those hands have been, and the sudden invasion of my personal space is alarming and uncomfortable. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Granted, there are worse offenses one can commit—suddenly feeling a tug on my head is not as bad as, e.g., getting felt up on a packed subway—but my first instinct is to slap the person who thinks that touching a stranger’s head is playful or complimentary in any way.

Even if you ask first, it still feels weird. If I say no, am I going to look uptight or mean? Usually, I’ll say yes—and if you proceed to pet me like a cat instead of patting and moving on, I’ll pull away. There’s another sly approach some have tried: asking to touch my hair while… touching my hair, before I can even answer the question. In the hilarious but sad-because-it’s-true viral video “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls,” comedian Chescaleigh pinpoints these exact interactions as she asks (in the character of a “white girl”), “Can I touch it? Oh wait, I’m already touching it.”

This has happened to me not just with white girls, though: People of every ethnic persuasion have done this, black men included. (No black woman I’ve randomly encountered has ever touched or asked to touch my hair, even while complimenting it.) And this can cross cultures: One Slate colleague, who has a head of red curls, was subject to the same heavy petting while living in China and Taiwan, and has occasionally had this happen to her stateside as well.

With black women, though, the subject is particularly touchy, so to speak: There are all kinds of issues black women deal with when it comes to their hair. (If you have not seen Chris Rock’s enlightening documentary Good Hair, do.) Sure, some people are genuinely fascinated by things they are not familiar with, and I get that. But if you “love” my hair, just tell me. No need to touch.