3 Very Simple Reasons Why You Cannot Touch My Hair: A Lesson on Intersectionality
By: Kris Henry
When I was 16, I found my four-year-old niece bawling in the living room as though someone were physically harming her. I asked her what was wrong, only to find out that her mother, my sister, wouldn’t straighten her hair for school, so she wasn’t going to look pretty. To say that my heart hurt hearing a four-year-old cry over ideal beauty standards is a given, but I realized that children of her generation lack images of natural hair, or women of color in general, in the media they consume. In truth, my generation also lacked those images.
This is a major problem termed intersectionality: when two types of oppression combine to form an even greater oppression. Women of color have consistently had to choose between fighting for racial and gender equity despite the fact that both race and gender intersect to cause more oppression.
But this was an insecurity that my niece and I shared, as I had been getting my hair relaxed for months. I went upstairs, washed my hair, blow-dried it until it was as big as it could get, went back downstairs, and told her to tell me if I’m pretty. She said, “Yes, but…” and I realized this would have to be a more permanent arrangement. Thus, I emerged a part of the natural hair movement, although I’d yet to hear that term.
The Natural Hair Movement is ultimately, for me, not about beauty. It is about filling the world with images that counteract homogenization in the media by being comfortable with the parts of myself that do not adhere to said homogenized standards. Were the media to fairly represent all walks of life, then female body image would not be so idealized, and maybe children like Blue Ivy would not be teased in the media for having an afro. Moreover, the media depict Beyoncé and Jay-Z as bad parents because of Blue Ivy’s hair, making infants gossip-worthy.
Now, since I have “joined forces” with the natural hair movement, people often assume that my hair is an exhibit for their perusal. This is both racist and sexist, and when I do not respond well, I become the offensive party since it’s “not a big deal” to want to touch my hair. So without further ado, here are three reasons why you cannot touch my hair:
- Doing Anything to Another Person Without Asking is Unacceptable
Ultimately, touching another person means that you are taking liberties with that person’s body. Under no circumstances is that acceptable in an equitable society unless explicit consent is given. No matter your intentions, if you think my hair is so cool that you forget my body does not belong to you, then you need to re-evaluate how deeply ingrained in your mind societal power structures are.
2. If You Ask: Arguing When I Decline is a Display of Entitlement
Should you be so kind as to ask permission, respect my decision. If a person of color says no, it means no. Consent is a more far-reaching issue than many seem to think. The truth is, no matter the circumstances, no means no. The removal of any person’s agency in regard to their body is representative of a bigger entitlement issue with how the body is perceived by societal standards. No one is entitled to touch my hair, no matter how close we may be.
3. I am Not a Pet
Therefore, wanting to pet me because my hair looks “soft” or “fluffy” sounds like the reduction of my person into an animal. Some say that my hair is not necessarily like an animal’s, only that it is “different” from their own. This may be true, but everyone’s hair is different. If your hair is curly, do you feel tempted to touch fine, straight hair? In truth, “different” tends to be code for “novelty,” which is fragmentation, another means of objectification.
In truth, it is not a political statement to feel disrespected when someone touches my hair. The political statement is the touching in the first place. The fact of the matter is this: black women continue to be harassed for having natural hair, people of color still get treated like dehumanized entities such as “demons” or “thugs” in the media, and women’s bodies continue to be sites of power struggles rather than their own personal autonomy. One of the most frustrating things about being an activist and woman of color is feeling like I have to take one issue in my life at a time for the sake of a movement, a phenomenon that dates back to women of color in the second-wave feminist movement. It is important to acknowledge intersectionality because these dialogues should not silence, but strengthen one another if societal standards are going to change. I know that when I come home to visit, my niece is always happy to wear her hair like Aunty’s.
Below are some links to more discourse on intersectionality and the natural hair movement: