How do we discuss the issue of race and beauty in one setting? How do I write one blog on this issue? It is clear that there is such a broad spectrum of conversation on what is beauty and how it impacts us as women, and adding race to that makes it an oceanic topic.
Crystal and I set out on a field trip together to explore how beauty is marketed and available in our everyday lives. We visited a grocery retailer, a department store, and a beauty supply store that specifically targets women of color.
I will be honest by stating that what I expected to find is what I already knew, that there are limited options for those searching for traditional or specific African or African American hair care or cosmetic products. I will also admit that while surprised that the mainstream retail environment seems to have attempted to be more inclusive of women of color, I still became aggravated that this limited offering is still the market and is what we call “progress.”
More than anything that happened during our experience, I can’t help but to go back to the one conversation that Crystal and I seemed to have discussed from the start to the finish of our journey which revolved around the sensitivity of white people touching black people’s hair.
Ok, this seems like a superficial topic (highlighted in the movie “Dear White People”) and between Crystal and I it started being comical and became touchy (pun intended). Eventually, it seemed to go to the deep end of the sensitivity scale on both our parts. So here we go!
A nano-second goes by after Crystal and I get in the car to leave on our journey and I tell her I’m in the process of braiding my hair but have not finished yet and she responds by reaching out to touch it!
So I’m going to take a pause and say this: I knew I wanted to write about this the nano-second this happened, but I was hesitant because I know Crystal now personally and know her intentions are not malicious toward me or my family. I know she is a strong but sensitive person who cares how she affects others and has been more than brave also to write alongside with me on such a tense topic.
I also know that this is what our blog is about and felt that this was where we needed to go to provoke conversation amongst our peers who have issue with this topic or who may not know this is a common race topic at all.
So back to the slow-motion scene of Crystal reaching out touch my strategically styled hairdo and cut to me moving out of the path of her excited fingers and exclaiming in slow-motion vocals, “Don’t touch it!” We laugh and this sets off the conversation we would have intermittently from driving from one place to the other.
What I found interesting is the difficulty I had expressing the whys of why the hair touching is bothersome and offensive to me and for the interest of time I’m going to break it down:
1. It’s a violation of personal space – you are simply in my bubble and I didn’t invite you to be and you didn’t ask.
2. I’m not a pet, please don’t pet me or my children because you are curious and have not had much exposure to the texture of “ethnic” hair.
3. I am not an alien or animal to be gawked at as though I am a freak of nature or an exhibit on display at a zoo or museum. I am no different than you.
On our second round of this conversation, Crystal begin to evaluate her motives for touching my hair. She discussed that she is just a touchy feely person. She explained that she likes to give innocent affection to those around her to express that she cares for them and has a normal habit of hair caressing toward her own children and children in her children’s circle. It’s just the mama in her.
I accepted and acknowledged that she and I were very much alike, but that it can be perceived a different way when you add race to the mix. It was here that we ran into difficulty, bumped into a double standard, and got real about the issue.
After going back and forth on the questioning of how is an admirable touch offensive or racist, I heard Crystal’s frustration at the heart of the matter. I heard her not really understand where I was coming from when I explained how I have had numerous instances in my lifetime where the touching of my hair or my children’s hair registered on my race tension meter.
She challenged my thinking by suggesting that maybe white culture as a whole is less aware of these boundaries and are touchy feely people. She asked me to consider that the intent may be harmless and not an implication of any race play.
While I appreciated her suggestions, I still maintained that the act still makes many of us uncomfortable.
The Double Standard
I admitted that I also share a similar desire to show caring through touch but the white on black hair touching issue is different. I realize it is a double standard to say it’s different, but I will stand by this standard. Why? Because in the history of race relations in this county it took legal debates, a civil war, a proclamation, and an amendment to the founding constitutional beliefs of our nation before white people changed the status of someone who looked like me from animal and personal property to human being.
After conversing more on the issue, I heard loud and clear that Crystal believed people should be taken for the value of who they are at heart. If you know them to be a good person why would that act be offensive simply because they are white? I agree with her. I would also be dishonest if I stated to her that race doesn’t matter because it does.
I certainly can’t speak for all black people and say we all have this same issue. It might not bother some of us at all and some may simply not want anyone of any race touching them or their hair as a personal preference (confirmed by a random African American patron we asked at the beauty supply store). For others of us, including my cousin who taped our beauty journey who also mentioned his childhood memories and discomfort with his white friends constantly touching his hair, this issue can simply be sensitive.
It is the sensitivity that needs to be respected, even if it’s not understood.
So do I go crazy if anyone white touches my hair? No, not all the time. I have grown to have discernment on the intent of the person based on knowing them. Also understandably, I might not want anyone touching my hair that I have styled perfectly (which was the case with Crystal more than her race) or that I have spent a great sum of money at the beauty shop (as most women can relate).
Turns out at the end of our journey together I showed Crystal how I install my tiny braids and invited her to touch them because she is my friend, and she kindly obliged.
Most of all it should be noted that despite my racial identity, I have never been different than my white counterparts (even though some have made me feel that way) and my hair, skin, and other features are just as common to me as theirs are to them.
Maybe just ask before you touch.
Read Crystal’s blog on our journey. Stay tuned for more blogs on this topic and for the video conversation when we walked the aisles!