Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Racial & Other Societal Implications Of Touching Black People's Hair

Written by Azizi Powell

This serves as a companion post to Good Hair & Bad Hair (Black People's Attitudes About Our Hair)

Why do White people touch Black people's hair and what do Black people think about that custom?

The following comment was written in reference to a post on the blog about racism experienced by Black people in Russia:
...”You get a smile here, as a black, when you are ready to disburse some cash and make a purchase that brings in money to a czech, or when they wish to fee* the texture of your skin or hair, if they are seing a black for the very first time. So** even go as far as saying that touching a black can bring some luck or fortune to one white czech.”
- "Should Black people travel to Russia?", posted by Anonymous October 23, 2012 12:16 PM [a Black male in the Czech Republic]

[Italics added by me to highlight that sentence]

*The word "fee" is probably a typo for the word "feel".
**The word "so" in the last sentence is probably a typo for the word "some".

That comment reminded me of information that I came across years ago that in several European traditions it was considered to be good luck to be the first person to see or get a kiss from a sooty faced chimney sweep or a dark skinned person on the first day of the year.

In one article about the old custom in Hungary of giving out postcards on New Year's Day, one postcard from 1938 shows the chimney sweep holding a bucket of four leaf clovers. Perhaps it was those clovers that led to the superstition that it was good luck to meet a dark faced individual in the beginning of the New Year. Of course, the chimney sweep was dark faced because of the soot which covered his face as a result of the work that he did.

Also, a portion of an online article about New Years superstitions includes information about the custom of "first footing" at midnight on New Year's Eve. According to that custom, it was considered good luck if a person who was dark haired was the first to cross the threshold of your house, and it was considered bad luck if a person who was blond or red haired did so.

Those superstitions may be updated versions of the belief that good luck would be conferred on the first person who saw a chimney sweep or a dark faced person on New Year's day.

Given that "black" was generally considered a color of evil in those European cultures - indeed "black" was considered the color of the devil - I wonder if those traditions meant that on the first day of the year, all beliefs were turned upside down (or "turned on their head", if you will pardon that pun).

The comment cited above that was written by a Black man from the Czech Republic motivated me to look online for other articles about why Black people think that White people want to touch their hair, with or without permission. As a result of that search I found this 2008 blog post:
"Can I Touch Your Hair? Black Women and The Petting Zoo"
Renee, Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The poster indicated that when she was a child living in a Greek and Italian neighbourhood in the USA, she "was a curiosity. People would touch it, and ask questions about its care like my hair was some kind of pet dog."
The poster wrote that "they were being racist, or treating me like some kind of exotic creature, never once occurred to them"....
She also wrote that she has grown in confidence as an adult and now asserts that "My blackness and your curiosity does not give you the right to touch me. I don't care if you smile while you do it, or whistle Dixie out of your ass. My body deserves just as must respect as anyone else. In answer to your question both verbalized and assumed, NO YOU MAY NOT TOUCH MY HAIR."
To date (October 24, 2012), there are twenty one comments that people wrote on that blog. The commenters who self-identified their racial/ethnic ancestry indicated that they were Black, or indicated that they were White, or indicated that they were of some mixed racial ancestry. One of the commenters, a Black male named Anthony, wrote that he wanted to share his story because he didn't want people to think that it was only Black females who experienced White people touching their hair without permission. Here's an excerpt of Anthony's comment:
I'm a black male and for about 14 years I had dreadlocks. While in college, at the university of Minnesota, I had numerous white people ask to touch my long dreads. Usually it was more people touching/grabbing my hair without asking. Never was it a pleasant experience educating or refusing someone about my hair. The fact that i was placed into a position where i had to "educate" someone about my hair made me different, which I didn't like. How many times have you had your hair grabbed by a man or woman that you don't know?
My sense was that most of the commenters to that blog post disagreed with the blogger Renee's position that racism was the reason why White people (and other non-Black people) wanted to touch Black people's hair. Instead, the majority of those commenters indicated that curiosity about hair that was different than their own was the reason why White people wanted to touch Black people hair. One commenter shared her experiences of people in China wanting to touch her hair -and her skin. That commenter wrote that she believed that the Chinese people wanted to do this because they were curious about her hair & skin since they had never seen a Black person before.

Two of the commenters shared their experiences of children in the Caribbean rushing up to them to touch their hair. One of those commenters described herself as a Black woman with long hair & indicated that this happened to her during her vacation in Jamaica. The other commenter described herself as being Hispanic/Caucasian and wrote that this happened to her during her vacation in Haiti.

And at least one commenter who identified herself as Black shared that she has had a number of experiences in which other Black people wanting to touch her long hair to determine if her hair was "real" or if it was a weave or extensions (hair that is woven into or otherwise attached to a person's hair in order to add to the length of that person's hair).

That said, most of the commenters wrote that the act of touching someone else's hair is an act of disregarding that person's personal space.

I agree with this conclusion and would also add that touching someone's hair or body without permission, or even asking to touch the hair or body of a stranger violates societal rules of etiquette. And, returning to the conclusions reached by Renee and some other commenters to her blog post, it seems to me that the belief that you can violate other people's personal space, and disregard their rights to privacy by touching their hair or their skin just because you are curious about those people's differentness suggests to me that you don't believe that those people are as worthy of respect as you are. If you feel that you can only get away with this act of disrespect with people of who are members of a race or ethnicity which historically has been considered inferior to your race/ethncity, that might, indeed, mean that you actually are racist.

That said, there may be other reasons why people-including Black people-may want to touch a Black person's hair. A particularly powerful photograph that was taken by the White House photographer Pete Souza is of a young Black boy in the White House Oval Office touching President Barack Obama's hair. In an article accompanying that photograph, Jonathan Capehart, a Black journalist writes:
Thanks to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, we African Americans are sensitive about our heads and our hair. A pat on the head, especially from someone white, would be considered to be patronizing at best. “Don’t let anybody touch your head,” my mother told me when we moved from Newark to a predominantly white town in New Jersey. I would learn at school that some would rub the head of someone black for good luck. And there were all sorts of put-downs for black hair — from Brillo to something not appropriate to mention in a family forum such as this. Thus, having your head touched is a rather intimate gesture that only family could get away with.

For Jacob, asking Obama about his hair was clearly about establishing a connection, about confirming that the powerful person who looks like him is really like him in so many ways. As Obama adviser David Axelrod told Calmes, “Really, what he was saying is, ‘Gee, you’re just like me.’ And it doesn’t take a big leap to think that child could be thinking, ‘Maybe I could be here someday.’”

The power of that photo taken by White House photographer Pete Souza had those two elements for me. A black man allowing his head to be touched by a stranger. But not just any stranger. A child seeking a familiar link between himself and the black man, who also happens to be the leader of the free world. Still, I don’t think I can ever articulate everything the Souza photo says to me. Photo speaks volumes about Obama and race By Jonathan Capehart 05/24/2012

FEATURED VIDEOS [revised on August 24, 2014 because a previously posted video is no longer available.]

Example #1: Never Touch a Black Woman's Hair

AShotofJenn, Uploaded on Feb 1, 2012

Horrific thoughts when someone tries to touch my hair.
Here are three comments from that video's viewer comment thread:

TaShar16, 2012
"I have a serious question. Why can't/shouldn't you touch a black woman's hair? Seriously what are the reasons? I can see if the woman has a week and she don't want someone to know it's not really her hair. Or, is it because you feel the person's hand is dirty? I hear jokes about this all the time, but I really don't know why.

jackalo34, 2012
"From my experience, it’s a myriad of things. 1. Like you said, I don’t know where the person’s hand has been. 2. You might mess up my hairstyle. 3. MOST people do it without even asking and it’s plain rude. 4. A lot of people do it because they think you have a weave eg “weave checking” 5. Some people just don’t like being touched in general. Personally, I love when someone plays in my hair…but it’s gotta be someone I know like my bf or my family but yea."

OmoItsekiri, 2013
"If your hair isn't permed i.e. curly or coiled a LOT of random people on the street will actually ask to touch your hair! Sometimes you're just not in the mood to have hands pulling at your hair! I don't mind people touching my hair but within reason!"

Example #2: Don't Touch My Hair

jsi08, Uploaded on Feb 7, 2012

Mini rant.
In this video a Black women who is mixed racal not only rant about people touching her hair, but also rants about people asking inapporpriate questions such as "What are you?" and "What race are you?"


Tribesbez, Uploaded on Dec 29, 2011

Just a story about something that happened to me recently. Please leave your thoughts in the comment box!
This young woman tells about the time when an older Black woman in the mall touched her hair and then described it a being coarse in an insulting manner.

Heeere ar three commens from the video's discussion threead:

SincereCurls, 2012
"That happens to me a lot... People are so intrigued with natural hair, Idk why, but they are... I totally agree with you on that the last thing that someone should do is make a negative comment about your hair after they touched it... I thought an older lady at my job was trying to get some tips from me when she asked me, "how did you get your hair like that?" I told her and she said, "so that is how you get it so nappy"... I was like really... Maybe I misunderstood her..."

kizzy6, 2012
"I so agree with you! Its about respect. I hate when my friends feel like they can just touch my hair after touching God knows what. NO THIS IS NOT A PETTING ZOO BACK UP! If someone ask maybe but its still awkward to me, its just hair!"

Kiki E., 2014
"I don't like when random people touch my hair. Especially if they don't ask. I go to a mostly white school and white girls always just think it's ok to come up to me and touch my hair."

Example #4: Interactive public art exhibit: You Can Touch My Hair

Confident Curls, Published on Jun 9, 2013

Here's an exchange from that video's interesting discussion thread:

Ullah, June 2014
"THE PROBLEM is that whites often see blacks as a collective so that if one steals, for some
reason they like to think most blacks steal--if one likes or allows strange hands in their hair then others will too. I have had white women reach over and grab a hank of my hair to feel it also had them digging into the hair to my scalp to "see if it is weave". A little bit of knowledge is dangerous. Touching hair will neither foster or engender understanding--it simply places a formerly ignorant group in the position of them thinking they know more than they really do.

I had a white woman tell me that my waist length hair (when it was that long) was weave because she read that black women could not grow hair. When I insisted it was, she reached over and ran her hands over my scalp before I jerked away-- she then asked me if I had that invisible strand weave because as she stated :she did hair so she knew my hair must not be real"

I told her that if you knew about single strand weave than she also knew that if felt it was easily discerned due to the stiffness of binding fake hair to real hair.

I also told her to not believe everything she hears no matter what color the source is--blacks can no more speak for all other blacks than one white can represent all other whites--what this exhibit did was get a lot of buzz and put people like me on display with many whites thinking that for some reason what a few did in one State must mean black women were now open to being head molested--I have to tell people to not put their hands on me--that is just nasty.

Reply by Jaunnette Lorimer, July 2014
"THE PROBLEM is that whites often see blacks as a collective" ... Did you not just make a collective as well? Not "some" or "many" or even "most" but a lump. I'm not saying it doesn't happen because I'm not stupid, but believe it or not, hair touching is not exclusively white to black. I had some guy rush up to me in a bar and go "I just have to feel it!" and crunch my hair in his hands. I was baffled, and so shocked all I could do was stand there and then finally go "Uh... okay bye?" and leave. Would I like it to happen again? Hell no, that was just weird. Do I go around touching other peoples hair? Only if I know them! And vice versa, I don't mind people touching mine but not a drive-by hair groping.

Personally, I don't think them doing this exhibit is wrong because I don't think promoting the actual "touching" of their hair is what it was really about so much as opening the conversation about it. As far as being on display I'm sorry you feel that way. Fact of the matter is we're all on display. Flat chest, big boobs,butt-length hair, pixie cut, curly, straight, red, green, purple.

You notice there were no men standing there with signs, I think that speaks to the problem being not just racial but gender. Women, all women, are objectified. Dissected down to a few base features. Isn't right by any means, but that's why opening conversation about it is important.


'Can I touch it?' The fascination with natural, African-American hair

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the publishers of the YouTube videos that are featured in this post.

Thank you for visiting pancocojams.

Viewer comments are welcome.


  1. I mentioned this post to my daughter who taught in various elementary school gradees for 14 years in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She mentioned a couple of additional points about this subject [I'll add these points without any editorial comments.]

    With regards to White female college students working in after-school programs allowing Black girls to "play with" their hair, my daughter thought that
    1. these women thought that this was a way of showing that girls that they were bonding with them, although that wasn't a good way of doing so.


    2. the college students were unfamiliar with African American culture and didn't know whether this was acceptable behavior among Black people.


    3. the college students didn't want to say "don't play with my hair" to the Black girls because they didn't want to be considered racist.


    4. they didn't want the girls (and the Black adult staff) to think that they thought they were too good for Black people to touch them.


    5. they didn't think anything good, bad, or indifferent about Black girls "playing with their [the White females'] hair".


    6. They liked being complimented about their hair, which is what the Black girls were doing by playing with it even if they didn't verbally say so.

    And with regards to Black girls wanted to play with (pretend to comb, or style, or braid) the hair of Black (including mixed race) girls in their classroom, my daughter shared some experiences she had with this. She particularly remembered having to remind her students and not to touch the hair of the only White girl in her kindergarten class. She also would remind that White girl that if she didn't want those girls to "play with her hair" outside of their classroom, she had to speak up for herself. My daughter said that she thought the reason why the Black girls wanted to comb their White classmate's hair was that-on some level- they thought she was like a baby doll come to life. Girls are taught by society to like styling hair & hair can be more easily styled when it is straight or straightened.

  2. Thanks for the post, Azizi. It's a very poignant picture of Pres. Obama and the young boy, even more so after reading your post.

    I think it's very rude to touch someone without their permission. But, to touch someone as a good luck talisman is beyond rude. I'm not quite sure how to describe it.

    Came over from the link on Starlight's comment section.

    1. Hi Iris!

      I appreciate your comments.

      Thanks for letting me know that you learned about this post from I heartly recommend that website to those interested in political astrology.

  3. I am from Eastern Europe and I had this experience many times. White people are sometimes fascinated about the different texture and volume of our hair. Personally, I don't like when people touch my hair but I've learnt to tolerate it unless they start squeezing them in their hand or pulling them. I also had people getting their kids touch and pull my hair. Not pleasant! And rude!

    1. Hello, Marine.

      Thank you for your comment. I am sorry that you have had people touching your hair. They are probably doing that because your hair is different than theirs and they don't realize that touching other people's hair is rude even if they ask to do so.

      I also believe that most people don't realize how it makes people feel inside when strangers touch their hair.

      I wrote this post in the hope that people who don't know this will learn it.

      Best wishes to you from the United States!

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