Emily Schorr Lesnick: Can I Touch Your/Will You Play With My Hair Paradox

hair is deepIf there is one truth emphasized throughout history, it is that hair is deep. Hair is a marker of beauty, of gender, of self-expression, and it is also the location of racism and colonialism. Scholars, artists and activists like Maya Angelou, “Sh*t White Girls Say to Black Girls,” and Al Sharpton, among others, have discussed the oppressive history that comes from a White person asking a Black person if they can touch their hair- it’s objectifying, demeaning, alienating. “Can I touch it?” “What does it feel like?” “I’m sorry, I’m just obsessed with Black people hair.” Yikes. And for those who still don’t get it, there is never an acceptable context in which to ask this question. And before you say it…no. Not even if you have a black friend is it okay.

Although the social and historical background is not the same, the “Will you play with my hair” request is equally annoying. In this scenario, a White person [usually a woman] asks a friend for a scalp massage/hair styling session. The entitlement and privilege in this question makes just the though of touching this person’s head icky: 1) Why would I drop everything to caress your follicles? 2) How much must you be on the “winning” side of history to be able to ask for someone to play with your hair and be unaware of the political implications?

Turns out, even when it is on your head, hair is intimate, personal, and depending on how you rock it, carries political implications. There are few right ways to pose the question, so unless you are a professional hair stylist, hands off. Lately, politicians have been inserting themselves into women’s bodies. And we all know the personal, the intimate is political. Let’s expand the definition of private parts to cover all personal follicles.

Emily Schorr Lesnick is a recent graduate of Macalester College, where she studied gender, identity, and comedy. Her writing has been featured on Splitsider, The Mary Sue, Funny not Slutty, Hello Giggles and Lilveggiepatch. You can follow her on Twitter @ESchorrLesnick

  • Let’s consider this

    The political/racial history associated with hair is undeniable. That said, most of these scenarios seem to involve or imply strangers asking these questions, or these questions being asked of strangers. The second half of this seems truly misguided. There is no inherent privilege in asking a friend for a head massage. Friends can ask friends for all sorts of physical/emotional favors in both directions. Not every personal or intimate interaction has a political implication.

    As a liberal, I really think that this sort of hyperbole is actually damaging to liberal agendas. This kind of over-political correctness is the reason a lot of people don’t take real issues of political correctness and privilege seriously.