Kira Lewis is recalling the time she was at a bar in New Orleans, having a conversation with a friend, when she felt someone’s hands sink deep into her hair. Lewis said she turned her head carefully, and was unsurprised to find a total stranger standing behind her, smiling.
That kind of thing happens all the time, Lewis said. She remembers the woman’s defense — “It was so pretty I just had to!”
Experiences like this were the seeds of an event hosted by the Black Women’s Collective (BWC) last month called “Please Don’t Touch My Hair.” The club hosted multiple events at Mills as part of Black History Month. “Please Don’t Touch My Hair” was part fashion show, part presentation, and part conversation, all about black women and their hair.
As BWC president Chantel Gammage, a third-year biochem major, told the audience, the event originated in the frequent conversations about black women and their hair at the club’s weekly meeting. A member would mention that someone had reached out and grabbed her hair, touching it without asking — and this happened all the time.
So, Gammage explained, “We decided to share our hair. Because it’s important. Important enough for other people to want to touch it.”
Over the course of the event, participants addressed many questions about their hair and their relationships to it.
“The event was a good opportunity for people to learn without invading personal space,” said Arianna Cruz-Sellu, a first-year student and a member of the BWC, in a later interview. Cruz-Sellu said she was pleased with how many questions were answered.
These questions, in an openly-structured format towards the end of the program, ranged from, “How often do you wash your hair?” to how to compliment a black woman on her hair (“I like your hair”), to addressing concepts like “the big chop.”
Cruz-Sellu said she was pleased that one participant, Daisha Mshaka, had been asked the question, “If you straighten or relax your hair, aren’t you just trying to adhere to a Euro-centric ideal of beauty — that is, “trying to be white”?”
Mshaka answered the question in the negative, and went on to explain that in fact, black women who straighten or relax their hair do so for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with being white. Either they like the way it feels; it requires less upkeep and cuts down on the hours of maintenance that wearing it naturally requires; or they simply want a change.
Mshaka also said that, “In the residence halls at Mills, it’s hard to be black and straighten your hair.” She explained the process of pressing her hair with a heated comb, a task that requires time and involves smoke coming off of her hair.
Mshaka said that hallmates who were not African American did not understand what she was doing. “Aren’t you hurting yourself?” she recalled one of them asking.
Such questions highlight the lack of knowledge about African-American hair, Mshaka said.
One of the main themes of “Please Don’t Touch My Hair” was the incredible diversity of hair that exists among black women, and the embrace of that variety. “Black women’s hair is beautiful in all of its diversity,” Gammage said, whether that be weaves, wigs, braids, dreads, long, short, natural, relaxed — the list goes on.
“It’s a process,” Gammage and others said, both of the ever-changing relationship she has to her hair as well as the changes in the hairstyle itself.
Many women also said that hair is a personal choice that does not define them.
Gammage read what certain participants had written about their hair. Cruz-Sellu’s statement read, “My hair is an expression of who I am. It does not define me. I love my hair because it is a symbol of the struggle of all black women to accept who I am. My [previous] dismissal of the beauty of my hair was a dismissal of the beauty of black women in general.”
Many participants expressed their relationship to their hair as a symbol of family, pride, culture, ancestry, and history.
In an interview following the event, Lewis, who participated in the event, spoke about her history with her hair, including the “lovely memories” she has of her father (who is black; Lewis’s mother is white) doing her hair every morning.
When her father braided and touched her hair every morning, it was a ritual that brought them close together, Lewis said.
But Lewis said that when others touch her hair, they are invading her space. “People grab my hair like twice a week,” she said.
Throughout the event, one response arose again and again: I don’t want people to touch my hair because it’s mine. It’s my space. You can ask to touch it — but don’t ask while you reach. And don’t be offended if the answer is no.
As one participant said, “My hair is a work of art, to be admired from a distance!”