Can I Touch Your Hair?

Originally posted over at BVHairTalk.com.

It happens to me…oh maybe once every two weeks. Usually it’s at an event where people are drinking and being social. Slowly someone will approach me, often with a broad and familiar smile on their face. “Your hair is awesome,” they say. “Can I touch it?”

And I’m not alone. YouTube vloggers have taken on the topic.

Brilliant blog posts have been penned by WomanistMusings, Los Angelista, She So Flyy, and NPR. In some of those posts, you’ll get a sense of understandable outrage.

In my early days of natural hair, I definitely felt some kinda way about being approached with outstretched hands and curiosity about my hair texture. But because it happens so often, my attitude towards that loaded phrase has evolved over time.

I’ve officially been natural for eight years now, and I’ve had every kind of ignorance brought my way. I’ve had white folks ask me “do you wash your hair?” I’ve had my own people look at me scornfully and ask, “can you even comb that?” as their eyes shoot daggers at my tresses. I’ve had to learn how to deflect negativity, and how to separate that from genuine wonder. Because even though this is the way our hair grows, natural, afro-textured hair can evoke confusion and curiosity from even those who should understand it and know what it feels like. Over time I’ve learned to control the initial anger that ignites when I’m asked an ignorant question about my hair. Over time, I’ve noticed that I don’t get that angry anymore. Life is too short for me to walk around pissed off all the time.


If I get a truly ignorant response, I just pity the fools. The only time I really get upset by curious hair touchers is when they’re rude about it. What would possess you to think you can just walk up to someone and touch their hair without asking? Where does this sense of privelige and entitlement come from? Where do you find cojones in that size, and can I get a pair? Do you think the world is your petting zoo and you can just walk around touching people at will? It’s something I can’t quite understand.

Make no mistake – I am nobody’s pet and nobody’s fool. If someone just straight up touches my hair without asking, I respond sharply. Because that is rude and unacceptable. If someone whose attitude I don’t care for approaches me and asks to touch my hair, I have no qualms telling them “no,” or if I’m being nice, “I’d rather you didn’t.” If there’s an opportunity to let them know how I really feel about it — that I find their request to be odd and intrusive, and would never occur to me if the shoe was on the other foot — I take it. But in my experience, part of the online identity I’ve given myself, and part of wearing my hair in this style, has been about dealing with assumptions and questions. My attitude has mellowed to the point where I’m more or less fine with being a natural hair ambassador. I wind up playing the part for people of all races, even my own.

Surprisingly enough, I enjoy when kids — especially little girls — smile when they see my hair, or when babies reach out to touch it. Sometimes when I see children gawking at me at the grocery store, I give them a warm smile. And if they ask to touch it, I’m fine with that, because that’s where the appreciation for a variety of hair textures begins. By realizing this hair is soft, touchable, and beautiful. I hope by satisfying their curiosity, I’m teaching them about the beauty of black hair in its variety of wonderful textures.

Two weeks ago, I was approached by someone who asked to touch my hair. The aspiring hair toucher in question was a black guy, who was with a sista with long, straight hair. “I’m sorry, I just have to ask…can I touch your hair?” I was with my husband at the time, and his lady seemed cool with it, so I gave him the go-ahead. He touched my hair very reverently and lightly. “Wow, it’s so fluffy!” he said afterwards. His lady gave me a tightlipped smile as they strolled off into the crowd.

A week ago, I was at the supermarket when someone approached me at the grocery store. It was a beautiful, older black woman who wore her hair short but relaxed. “I love your hair! How do you get it to do that?” As she asked, she moved her hands in the universal sign for “I want to touch it.” I just let it do what it does,” I said. “Can I…?” she asked. “Sure.” She ruffled my hair and seemed amazed by the texture. “I’d love to rock a style like that, but my hair won’t grow that way,” she explained. “How do you know?” I asked her.

I don’t know if she even remembers our conversation, but I hope she does. And I hope somewhere, it stuck with her.

Do you get this question often? Does it make you angry? How do you deal with it? What are your thoughts and experiences on people touching your hair?

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Comments

  1. I have gotten use to it, I think what gets me is when people touch before asking. I have my hair curly sometimes and I flat iron it out sometimes, but no matter how I have it people seem to want to touch. Surprisingly more African Americans ask to touch my hair. I think the thing that got me one time was when a cashier who was black, asked when she saw my hair was I black…this offended me more than people touching my hair.

  2. What a beautiful article Patrice, thank you so much. O my where to start? I lived in a childrens home in South London where my flaxen hair was the novelty- and i was annoyed that i wasnt provided with a big comb the way the other girls were. we all loved to play with each others hair. its sad if ppl never get the chance but i agree adults are often not as charming as children and not asking is a shocking intrusion. I have to say that it really BUGS me when white women adopt and dont/wont/cant figure out how to take care of their kids hair! To me this is shocking to not partake in such a lovely ritual. It makes me crazy why ppl wouldn’t groom their children? I think so much could be said on this subject Patrice- keep going please! For me the hair touch urge is towards unbrushed children- does anyone teach adoptive parents classes in hair?

  3. I do get this question a lot and my feelings about it depend on the circumstances. Like you, I tend to feel out the individual. If it’s a young person or someone who seems “genuinely curious” then I’m cool with it. Somehow I feel like I can just tell. A lot of times, if it’s another black woman who doesn’t have natural hair, I usually let them do it too (cuz I’m secretly trying to show them it’s allright). But, there are certain setting where, no matter what the motivation, it’s just not okay to ask, e.g., at a professional function. I’m usually like: “Seriously?? No you cannot touch my hair in the middle of this conference!”

  4. I get this ALL the time! More now with my locs than when I was a loose natural.I usually don’t mind if they ask. Not that I am an official natural hair representative but if I can bust another myth by educating curious folx about natural hair, then I’ll take one for the team. But when people just start grabbing on my locs, I feel like bustin’ chops fo real. That’s just rude!

    I love this post, Bella. Will show it off on Loc Rocker. :)

  5. … I’m transitioning but I’m already prepared for this. If someone asks me to touch my hair, I’ll simply respond, “Can I touch yours first?”

  6. I like the other ladies feel differently according to approach… I have to remember to hold my self righteous tongue when a sister adamantly decries their desire to “go natural” I have serious qualms about that statement, and I won’t go postal now, I’ll just say why would you have to “go” when you “are”. But that’s an identity issue for another day. Usually I am pretty patient about it. I save the “lamb’s wool like Jesus” response for particularly rude people, and I actually allowed my white male co-workers while we were out to dinner touch it. I told them, it’s just hair… I have boundaries about who may touch me and in what way, and that extends to my hair.

    At any route, I feel we as black women on the brink of a new era for our people, pioneers in a sense, have to deal with the effects of a cross over, We are continuing to lay the foundation, by being confident in our own skin and with our own bodies, and our natural hair for a day when many of our young women won’t think twice about enjoying and displaying the natural texture of their hair, in whatever form they choose. I am grateful for that.

  7. Christine says:

    My husband’s best friend has Asian fro, naturally. Seriously thick very curly (but not tight) curls. He gets it a lot. He’s pretty outgoing, but he does get bothered when people just come up to him without asking. He grows it for Locks of Love, so he’s usually in some sort of in between 1/2 inch hair to 10 inches.

    I think generally it comes from a place of curiousity more than malice, but still, I wouldn’t run up and touch someone without asking and would feel weird if someone were doing it to me. I find it adequate to let whoever I see with a hair style I admire know, “Hey, I think your hair is awesome.” :)

  8. I haven’t fully transitioned to having full-on natural hair but it shocks me some, that people still do this sort of thing. When I was younger and had braids quite a bit, my non-black friends would often touch my hair and ask all sorts of questions about it. Such experiences usually had a negative toll on my self-esteem and sadly, led me towards the root of the relaxer.

    If at this stage, people ask out of pure curiosity and the person wants to better understand natural hair, then I am more understanding to that. However, if people come from a place of either hatred or animosity towards natural hair, then my tolerance level falls down a couple of notches. But one has to choose their battles well and it’s always best to leave a situation with ones dignity intact.

  9. I like when my husband does it and smiles and tells me how much it’s grown or how fluffy it is. :) Everyone else…hmmm

  10. One of my responsibilities as the white mom of a 9-year old African-American/Eritrean/Caucasian daughter who has gorgeous and waist-length SisterLocks, I find myself keeping white strangers and acquaintences out of my daughter’s hair. Honestly, did no one teach these people any boundaries? With people of color, however, the level of courtesy raises considerably. No surprise there.

    When asked by sincere people who are not out for some dose of the perceived “exotic,” however, it’s not uncommon for me to ask my daughter’s permission to “do the hair thing,” which means to explain the locking process and how wonderfully easy it is, etc. and this often involves me and the other person up in her locks. Most of the time, my daughter will agree, but not always, and then I don’t push it. It’s her head. If insincere people ask about it, I’ll either defer the entire issue or, at time, I’ve had to resort to a cold, “Do not touch my child.”

    Our goal with the SisterLocks is that she could love her hair just as it grew out of her head, and it was the best hair-related decision we’ve ever made. http://public.fotki.com/bigab/sisterlock-pictures/leandrea-6-yrs-old/ links to photos of the installation, almost 3-years ago.

  11. Well, I don’t wear my hair in it’s natural curls but I concider my hair natural because I don’t use a relaxer and when I wash my hair it curls up really pretty. I just like straight hair… Anyway, black people always assume the I am biracial because of the texture of my hair and the length, not that my hair is supper long but most of us only think black hair can only reach the shoulders and thats the longest it can get. So, I am constantly asked if they can touch my hair and at first I would be upset because of the way people would touch, wanting to touch the root to see if I have any tracks. I have learned to just get over it because its the saddest thing how we constantly view only one way of beauty in our selves.

  12. I tell relaxed women a story before I might let them touch my a little below my butt length dreads. when I was hot combing my hair almost 9 years ago, I COULD NOT stand for people to ask to touch my below the shoulder. That usually makes hands pull back; But I will let children and elders touch my hair. Some of my daughters’ friends think it’s strange I’ve never had a “so-called relaxer” I only had my hair warm combed. My daughters understand my stance against perms, hot combs and chemicals. It is others that don’t

  13. I experienced this just last night while leaving Wal-Mart. An older female employee started flailing her arms practically yelling for me to “Come here. Come here.” I walked over (by this time people are staring) and all she had to say was “What you doing with all that hair?” I know that she meant it as a compliment but it gets tiring. Did she really have to act like I was stealing my groceries and didn’t she just say that she liked my hair? I just smiled and said thanks because what do you say to a question like that? I didn’t want to be rude because she was much older. The constant questions like,”Is that your real hair?” gets old and it annoys me to no end that soo many people including our own do no believe or understand that “black” hair can grow. It is not necessarily a weave/wig. And why do we care so much either way? Then they hear my accent and conclude that I’m not black! Black people live all over the world! Oh and let’s not talk about the Mexican cashier that told me I had beautiful hair but I should stop putting olive oil in my hair so that it wouldn’t be so curly! (I never met this woman a day in my life before.) I just smiled and said thanks for the tip because I couldn’t deal.I apologize for the rant but I wanted to let that out:)

  14. Ambrosia says:

    Love this post. I am learning to be a little more tolerant and not just snap on people when asked about touching my hair. Some folks are genuinely curious and maybe responding out of admiration. However, folks should always ask. Curiosity is not an excuse to be rude.

  15. S. Moore says:

    I have this same issue, CONSTANTLY!!! I have waist length locks and have questions everywhere I go!!! I once had a grown a** man approach me from the back and lift my hair(from my butt) and SNIFF my hair!!!! He sniffed me!!!! I was offended that he did this!!! Normally, I don’t care if you touch mine but this was TOO FAR!!!

    Side Note, I am a preschool teacher and have my kids that like to touch my hair…especially my boys!!! I wear it tied up in different buns and such to avoid getting lice from the kids.

  16. I get this all the time. I’ve been a natural all my life and I moved to a new school 2 years ago, and people were just enamoured by my hair. I couldn’t understand it. My school is predominantly white and there are 3 other black ladies with me, but they all rock braids, except one who is never around. So I get people just appear behind me and start touching my hair, and I’ll freak out saying “Um, excuse me? Why are you touchin my hair??” And they’ll be like “Oh! I just really wanted to touch it. It’s so cool.” Or “I just really wanted to see if it felt like carpet, because it looks like carpet.”

    It gets really annoying but it’s also kind of cute, like, is it THAT amazing? It’s just hair.

  17. I usually don’t have a problem with people touching my baby locs, as long as they ask first. I actually had to explain to one person that I could feel them touching the end of my hair. I just don’t understand why some don’t get why touching my locs without my permission is offensive, but I liken it to touching their private parts….don’t touch me unless I give you permission, and I do the same for you.

  18. Actually, I kinda wish I got the question more often than I do. I’ve been natural for 2 1/2 years. Where I work, early on, folk just took it upon themselves to touch away. I had to sit down with the ones I grew to care about to just be like, you don’t do that. So like you I don’t get mad, I really just tell them like it is, and if they catch me on the wrong day, after I’ve patted my growing baby fro to death, then its the rough side of the mountain lol.

    But more often than not I’m using the opportunity to educate.

    @ S Moore, I am aghast at the sniffing! I can’t even imagine what I would do. Hopefully lol.

  19. I don’t think people have asked to touch my hair, but I probably wouldn’t mind if the person didn’t put me on the spot and was actually interested.

    What has happened is that African American women will ask me how I care for my hair and I’ll send them an email with links to places like naturallycurly.com, afrobella.com and including lots of recommendations for products.

    BTW, feedburner would not let me access this site through Google Reader.

  20. Veronica says:

    I am so thrilled to have found this site! As someone who wears a natural ‘fro, it’s nice to be able to have a place to go to find out about good things for my hair! By the way, I stumbled on a great website recently while I was looking for make up and hair people for my wedding: http://www.eventnow.com. The site matches you with vendors in your area after 2-3 minutes of filling in the details of what you are looking for. I recommend checking it out. I was actually matched with someone who does natural hair!

  21. Okay you can touch my hairs….

  22. BlackBetty says:

    Oh the hair touching. I don’t get that as much as I used to. Now I get hair consultations. That’s what I call them. For example, Saturday afternoon, I’m grocery shopping with my bf when a woman pulled me aside to question me about my hair. So standing in the corner of the produce section, off to the side because she was embarrassed and didn’t want my bf staring (he has locs and styled my hair that day), she proceeded to ask what I used on my hair, how I styled it, what she should use to combat dryness, etc. The consultation prompted another natural sister to join in and ask questions. Considering I rolled outta bed, fluffed and looked a mess, I should’ve been flattered but being asked over and over for tips and suggestions can be tiring. It’s very rare that I let someone touch my hair for a myriad of reasons ranging from respect to germs. Seriously, I don’t where you hands have been. If they are geniunly curious, ok. If they are rude and view me as a circus act, no freaking way!
    Btw, I told the ladies to visit your site and one other and was on my merry way.

  23. Black Honey says:

    I have some rules in place for touching my twists, twist-out fros and cornrows:

    All children under the age of 12 are allowed to touch if they ask.

    At home, older people with foreign accents-because they are old and I respect my elders.

    In foreign lands, natives may touch my hair.

    No one else can. I don’t discuss my hair (questions like how often do you wash your hair is met with silence. Isn’t it odd that the white people who would ask you how often you wash your hair, ask that whether you are relaxed or kinky.)

    You know what else. I more offended by people who take my picture without my permission.

  24. I get it all the time too. I thought that once i transitioned into Locs that it would stop… but all those experiences have led me to purchase this…..

    http://www.thedirtyartist.com/da1.html

  25. Lol, I guess all you can do is embrace it. I remember those days and wanting to scream when people just touched my hair without asking, so at least they ask lol.

  26. I loved this video, thank you so much for posting this. It pretty much summed up just about every experience I’ve ever had with my own locs, and made me feel better to know I wasn’t the only one.

  27. OMG! Tonight a woman ran up to me and literally blocked me from exiting a store. She just kept looking at me-like I was from another planet. I said, “Excuse me,you’ve mistaken me for someone else”. She said, “No, I just wanted to give you my card. Im a stylist. I do cuts and perms” What the phuck???….

    Last week, I went to an upscale club. All the women had weaves or perms. I was the ONLY woman with a natural. The men were literally begging to touch my hair. The entire night men kept telling me I looked like Jill Scott or some exotic woman. While the women eyes seemed to say, “Nappy *itch”

    Thank God- I have found total freedom in being a natural. In August it will be a year without a hot comb.

  28. melaniecheryl says:

    Once again Bella you approach a situation with grace. Love it! I have been natural for many years and would cringe everytime a stranger would touch my hair. Reading this article has caused me to reflect on this. I live and work in a predominately White community. Very few Sisters in my town have hair like mine, so of course I stand out. I am quite fascinated by my coils and kinks and play in them all of the time. I can understand that others would be fascinated as well, especially those are not blessed with the ability to have hair like mine. Yes, you may touch–but only if you ask NICELY.

  29. my hair’s not natural now,but my brother’s is and so are my two nephews. There’s something so tactile about hair, relaxed and natural, and I think it’s mostly because natural hair is soooo different that it makes you want to touch. I think it’s natural to want to experience the feel of something different. It’s fun to touch my brother’s locks and remember when his locs were just starting out and shorter than my hair. It’s fun to touch my nephews hair and see how his haircut is growing out and feeling when the curl starts coming back. Some mean harm but most people who ask are genuinely intrigued by it.

  30. i have locs and people ask me all the time “are they real” with outstretched arms ready to touch. I don’t like people touching me hair simply because for the most part, the motives are not positive.

    I find it funny that natural hair (which is supposed to be ‘natural’ to us) is the most un-natural thing out there. Its like “OMG, you hair is…natural? where they do that at?” lol. I don’t like attention being drawn to my hair because to me, its not that phenomenal. Its hair, the way nature gave it to me. I feel like if I play it down and make people think its not as incredible as its seems, maybe people will begin to think of natural hair as ‘regular’ and everything else as strange.

  31. Life is full of little annoyances; folk of color seeming to bear more than our share. At some point the annoyances will own you if you don’t choose grace, which the author seems to have done. My wife, whom I admire deeply, has been natural for a while now. She committed to what I now see as a lifestyle change after it was clear that our daughter’s mental health was at stake if we didn’t get a handle on things. At any rate, more often than she talks about the “can I touch syndrome” she talks about the impromptu consultation requests that someone else mentioned as well. She seems flattered and accommodating. But then again, my wife is overflowing with grace, so it is no surprise that she would frame it that way. … Anyway, it’s nice to see positivity in such reflections as you’ve offered.

  32. Bianca says:

    On a few occasions, I’ve been asked if others can touch my hair. It’s a little odd, but I’m ok. Again, I’m like you; I’ll decline if I am not comfortable. I get more stares than anything else. Here in Houston, almost EVERY Black woman is either “weaved up or lacefront out”. I’m still not quite “the norm” and I’m ok with that. I can honestly say the only thing that bothers me is this “good hair, bad hair” theory. I am so over it, yet we still have a long way to go. I’ve been told that I have “good hair” and it really irritates me. The term “nappy” used with such a negative tone REALLY gets under my skin…but alas, there is nothing I can do about it. I remember a posting you did awhile ago, trying to convince this woman to love her texture after a lengthy conversation at a convention(not so sure about the specifics). I refuse to try and convince ANYONE to love their texture. The conversation becomes redundant. We truly have a long way to go.

  33. I’ve gotten this question a few times from some of my black-female coworkers when I wear a wash and go. I really don’t mind because as a new afrobella I’m so happy that other people admire my natural curls. They seem to be amazed that it grows the way it grows without any manipulation, which is usually followed by, “I wish my hair could do that.” To which I reply “well it may if you give it a chance.” Some of those same people later came to tell me that I had inspired them to go natural themselves..I absolutely love hearing that.

    Even when I wear my hair straight my grandma loves to touch it and feel how soft it is..of course she doesn’t have to ask :)

  34. The African American women will compliment but the west indian women will touch without asking. I don’t get offended by it because i am proud of my hair. But now that I am reading my article i can see how they are disrespecting my personal space.

  35. An elderly man came up to me from behind while I was in line at the post office and started stroking my hair. He said “Hi red”. I nearly took him out with a left hook to his jaw but I pulled back the punch before hitting him…FYI I am a white 40-year old female with red hair. The man’s actions creeped me out and scared me. Why do people think they have a right to touch someone’s hair? Thank you for the posts; I appreciate that I am not alone here.

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