Antonia Opiah’s “You Can Touch My Hair” public art exhibit features Black women in Union Square, New York City, holding signs that read, “You Can Touch My Hair.” On the surface, this serves to open up dialog about Black coils/kinks/curls/loc(k)s. At the surface level, it is about Black women asserting bodily autonomy and allowing others to touch their hair. At a deeper level, this is a troubling case of an African-descended person further facilitating symbolic violence against Black bodies by proffering Black bodies to a (presumably) White gaze.
In her Huffington Post piece, in which she defends her exhibit, she writes:
Los Angelista attributed the phenomenon to “racial superiority and privilege.” A 2011 CNN article quotes blogger Renee Martin who reasons, “it’s about ownership of black bodies more than it has to actually do with hair.” I found all that a bit extreme and likely written out of the anger and shock of their encounters. So I decided to talk to some of my white friends about the matter.”
All too eager to dismiss the lived experiences and valid anger of Black women rejecting unconsented touching of their hair and bodies, Opiah turns to her white friends and center their opinions. Never mind that discussions of consent that do not address the power imbalances that necessitate consent are incomplete. No, get a white friend’s opinion on whether touching Black women’s hair is permissible. This focus elides the fact that Black bodies are indeed treated as ‘public property.’ From the auction block to the human zoos (also known as “ethnological expositions” or “Negro Villages”- the last of which was closed in 1959- not so long ago), Black bodies have historically been offered up to the intrusive Gaze and touch of white audiences.
Notably, Opiah, a natural hair blogger, speaks and acts as a descendant of Nigerian immigrants to the United States, whose experiences varies greatly from descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States whose subjectivities have been more directly shaped by the legacies of enslavement and their continued status as “second-class citizens.” For descendants of enslaved Africans, the social ‘reality’ that our bodies are not considered our own, and that our self-possession is seen as deviance or decadence is made clear in the quotidian encounters in public spaces. Surveillance, unconsented touching and out-right policing serve to remind us of this ‘fact.’
Thing is, this is in a context where Black bodies- particularly Black women’s bodies- are deemed ‘public property’ and have been since the inception of this nation. As the “racialized Other,” Black people’s bodies are treated as deviant, criminal, hypersexual, and in a more benign sense, “curiosities.” This extends to our hair. What Opiah’s public art exhibit fails to apprehend is the very real entitlement that a white supremacist society feels toward Black- and particularly, gendered- bodies. Dialog need not be facilitated by furthering this entitlement at the intersection of revulsion and desire. Black bodies need not to serve as a junction point for ‘dialog.’ What good is this dialog, when those same bodies are denied the right to be heard? We need to dig deeper and consider the roots of this “curiosity.”
If you dig into historical and legal texts, you’ll find that law and customs codified this constructed difference. In French-occupied North America, laws were passed that required free Black women to wear headscarves, also known as the “tignon” to signify their lower status (pointing to the way in which Black women’s hair is also a signifier of class- the vestiges of which can be seen in contemporary racialized discourses of what constitutes a “ghetto” hairstyle). In the case of enslaved Black women, there are ample narratives recorded by formerly enslaved Blacks that document the ways in which their hair became a focal point in the policing and subjection of their bodies.
It is a violation of our bodies and a reinforcement of the social ‘fact’ that our Black bodies are not our own when others feel like they are entitled to touch our hair. And this entitlement speaks to a power imbalance. That is, white people are not seen as “other,” yet Black people- Black bodies- are treated as “other”- the criminal, menacing, hypersexual “Other” whose hair is “unprofessional” or simply “outlandish.” In practice, this plays out when Black employees in the United States have to sue for the right to wear their hair as it grows out of their head, and they find themselves without the protection of non-discrimination clauses based on race.
But does my experience as a “mzungu” or “obruni” in Africa compare to Blacks’ in America?
In no way does Africans touching white people’s hair equate to Black people being subjected to unwanted touching/prying/questioning about their hair/bodies in specifically US/Western/white-dominated contexts. In Africa- even in former settler colonies- white people a minority in numbers only, but here in the US (and in much of the “West”), Black folks are doubly the ‘minority.’ We are the ‘minority’ in numbers and in terms of structural inequalities which derive in part from a history of enslavement, subjection and abjection.
Nor does your ‘difference’ as a European-descended person or “other” on the continent of Africa signify second-class status. Likely, you command higher pay and receive better service in hotels, restaurants and other places of commerce. I’ve seen this first-hand in my visits to the continent, where concierges, wait staff and customer service employees deliberately ignored me and my Black skin in favor of white customers, assuming that they had more money and favor to offer than I did. Why? White supremacy and hegemony is a global phenomenon that manifests particularly in local contexts. It is, in part, a vestige of colonialism and an effect of neocolonialism or continued colonial relations (termed “coloniality” by Prof. Ramon Grosfuguel at U.C. Berkeley.)