“Can I touch your hair?” Short answer: No. But I shouldn’t have to tell you that. You should know better than to ask a Black person if you can touch their hair, especially if you don’t know them.
I was asked that very question as I stood in a long line with my friends on campus, waiting by Peterson to get admitted into a concert at Rimac! Out of nowhere, a girl came by us and started to ask if we knew her friends and we said, “No.” Then, she proceeded to ask, “Well, they said they were right here. You sure you haven’t seen them?” Again we replied with no. After that, she looked at me and fixed her lips to say, “Can I touch your hair?” I simply looked at her and she just knew. She frantically added, “Oh, I’m sorry never mind” and walked away.
That was a weird experience for me because the girl was very persistent and had the audacity to ask to touch my hair without knowing me at all. Usually, people ask the question and assume I’ll say yes. Before I know it, their hands are in my head for about 2 seconds until I awkwardly back away from them. In this case, she asked if she could touch my hair, knew I would have said no, and walked away. I don’t sit in a chair in someone’s apartment or hair salon for 5 or more hours, for them to touch my hair without my consent. I understand it looks pretty, however, my braids are made to protect my hair for long periods of time, to help me express myself, and to allow me the versatility to wear it any way I want.
Black women and men have been wearing protective hairstyles since around 3500BC in order to retain length and moisture within their kinky, curly hair. In the past, braids have been used to identify certain cultures, protect the hair of enslaved people as they were working long days, and stay in touch with one’s heritage. Corporate America has labeled protective hairstyles as unprofessional. As a result, Black people were fired for wearing practical and versatile hairstyles.
Protective hairstyles range from braids (natural, extension, cornrows) to twists to Bantu knots to even wigs and weaves and many others. These hairstyles are meant to last long periods of time such as 3 weeks or longer as a way of retaining our length through a method of low manipulation. Today, we see braids and other protective hairstyles becoming more popular in mainstream media. With popularity, unfortunately, comes cultural appropriation as we see people like Kim Kardashian getting praised for wearing extension braids; just as other white women get noticed for the same hairstyles which Black women are ridiculed for, without paying homage to the culture that the style belongs to.
There’s a line between culture appropriation and culture appreciation. Appreciate our hair from afar. Don’t take liberties in touching our hair without permission or wearing our hairstyles without fully understanding the background and history behind them. Most importantly, do the work in educating yourself.
For my Black Queens and Kings at UCSD, remember to oil your scalp and tie your hair up at night. Don’t be ashamed of your bonnets and durags or your beautiful hair! Learn to be comfortable wearing your natural hair or stepping out of your comfort zone to try new styles. Own the space you’re in and rock what makes you happy.
Peace fam, come back when more sauce is spilled!
Kiyahna Brown is the Assistant Arts and Culture Editor and creator of The Sauce: a new Black column within The Triton. You can follow her on Instagram @Kitkat12600