It doesn’t matter what you look like: Walking, riding, standing, or existing in New York City while female (or gender nonconforming) is bound to get you unwanted attention. Whether it’s that dude smirking at you on the subway or a drunk person shouting “faggot priest!” in your face (true story, happened to me this week), living here means accepting the fact that your personal appearance will be scrutinized and vocally critiqued, maybe even on a daily basis.
On top of that, black women also have to deal with a pervasive, often invasive fascination with their hair. “Are we so different that touching us is as intriguing as touching a snake? Is our hair taboo?” Antonia Opiah asked in a Huffington Post op-ed last month about white people’s embarrassing tendency to pet African hair like a curious baby grabbing at cat fur.
So when Opiah announced that her media company, un’ruly, would willingly be sending black models to Union Square not just to invite commentary, but to invite strangers to touch their hair, we were awed. Union Square? New York City’s peeper population homebase? It was a brave social experiment and public art piece–one designed to foster discussion about black hair, femininity, personal space, ownership of that space, and taboo.
On Thursday, three models–each with different types of African hair–held signs in Union Square that read, “YOU CAN TOUCH MY HAIR.” Maliha Ahmad, a petite 27-year-old model with a soft, wavy ‘fro that framed her face like a cloud, told me she was asked the question on a daily basis.
“It’s almost like someone saying, ‘Can I touch your skin?'” Ahmad said. “But that’s why we’re out here. We’re trying to figure out the curiosity behind it. Why is it something that is a question consistently?”
“I get strangers asking questions about my hair–they call me Cheetos,” Joliana Hunter, another un’ruly participant with slender, ginger dreads, said. “The questions put me off. It’s like you’re an outsider, you’re something strange.”
“There’s no such thing as ‘good hair,'” Ahmad added. “‘Good hair’ is terminology that’s been made up–let’s go back to slavery–by white people. Good hair is straight, it’s fine, it’s thin, and it made black people feel like their hair is bad. But we need to break out of that. It’s 2013.”
But while some had anticipated a lot of white people gawking, much of the questions about the models and their hair–Ahmad’s natural fro, Hunter’s dyed dreads, and Gardner’s sleek weave–came from the natural hair community, black women who feel that by leaving their hair natural, they’re shrugging off the cultural imperative to be more “white,” the models said.
Jade Gardner, the model with the weave, told me that some people had tried to “convert” her to natural hair while she stood with the sign. “A lot of people wear extensions–black, white, Indian, Asian. It’s diverse,” she said. “Black people have different textures of hair, long, straight, some really kinky and curly. I’ve lived in America all my life. European women wore wigs, Cleopatra wore wigs–in a sense, this is also part of our roots, to wear wigs.”
While I was talking to Gardner, Michael Marcusa, a 24-year-old white Ph.D. student Gardner had been speaking to earlier came up and started rubbing the back of her head. “I’m a pretty easy going person,” she said, when I asked her if that made her uncomfortable.
Marcusa said he’d never really thought about African hair until he walked out of the subway and saw women holding signs.
“I’ve never gone up to someone and asked, ‘Can I touch your hair?'” he said. “I didn’t really look at it as an experience about race–the more interesting part of it for me was that people were holding signs that said ‘you can touch my hair’ and only 1 percent of people came up and did it,” he said. For Marcusa, “it was more a social experiment about shyness,” he said.
Other natural-haired women in the crowd said they actually enjoyed it when white people ask about their hair, largely because it made them feel embraced instead of other-ized.
Carrie Suter, a 21-year-old singer, and her friends Victoria Nelson and Crystal Miller were hanging toward the outer edge of the crowd when I asked them how they felt about the display. Suter just went natural, she told me, and she loves it–even when people ask to touch. “When I have natural hair and people want to touch it, it’s a good thing,” Suter said. “It feels accepted,” she added.
“But it depends on how they approach you,” Miller noted. “Like if they said, ‘Ugh, can I touch your hair,’ I’d say no.” But if they were nice about it, she said, she’d take the question as a compliment.
Some white people did walk up toward the outer edges of the crowd, or slow their pace to look at the signs, but most kept walking. And despite some fears that the display would turn into a circus of unwanted attention, most of the commentary was positive, the models said.
“I thought that we were going to have a negative backlash. I thought there were going to be a lot of black women in the natural hair community would come up to us and shame us,” Hunter said. “It’s been so wonderful, and we had a lot of natural-haired women participating. I’m just really happy that it was completely positive.”
“[This] is very very beautiful,” Roy Woodbine, 44, an actor and spoken word poet with light brown dreads spun on top of his head, added. “Our hair is part of our cultural makeup, and even if you’re of European descent, you still have your African descent,” he added.