A week ago today, I ventured down to Union Square to experience You Can Touch My Hair, an interactive art exhibit intended to address the past and present fixations with the bodies of black women, which range from benign curiosity to violative exoticism. The exhibit interested me because I liked its intent, but I was uncertain about how well it could be executed given what I perceived to be the limited knowledge of the problem. In other words, I was afraid that the exhibit would be unclear to people who didn’t know about this history of Black women being openly violated. .
After directly interacting with the exhibit and tarrying to observe others (mainly non-Black people) interacting with it, I think it was generally well-executed. The structure of the exhibit was simple: Black women held signs permitting people to touch their hair and people (of all races) approached them and engaged with these women either physically or verbally or both.
Some people likened it to a “petting zoo” or to the story of Sarah Baartman, but I think that those comparisons are lame and lazy if you consider how the exhibit actually played out. For instance, while I was speaking with one of the participants, two White teenagers literally ran up to her and curiously stroked her hair then dashed back, grinning. This is exactly the kind of interaction that many critics feared:instead of lingering to have a discussion or have the exhibit contextualized, they saw the opportunity to touch Black hair, took it and ran off. Pure exoticism.
I think that’s a misreading of what happened. What stood out to me about these White teenagers’ interaction with the participants is that they only interacted with the participants. This is important to note because Black people, particularly Black women, were flanking the exhibit throughout my stay. In fact, there were so many Black people surrounding this exhibit that I found it because I saw a congregation of Black women! If the exhibit had been purely exotic, I think that these women (and maybe myself, since I have an afro), would have been subject to this same exoticism. When you go to a petting zoo, you pet all the goats, not just the goats behind the fence.
To be clear, I’m not saying these teenagers’ actions were completely benign. Their curiosity and their subsequent enjoyment of having it fulfilled, were kind of unsettling and bizarre, personally. Nevertheless, as explained to me by a participant, the exhibit was not anti-curiosity; they actively wanted people to engage with the uniqueness of Black hair. What the exhibit was really critical of was how that curiosity manifests in people’s interactions with black women: the unsolicited touching, the staring, the disapproval, the disgust. Those kinds of interactions make Black women feel as if they are grotesque objects without their own agency or a sense of dignity. In other words, the crux of the exhibit was the subtext of the sign, “You can touch my hair,” which was, “You can touch my hair, because I myself told you that I’m okay with it.” Even those weird White teens seemed to understand that.
Admittedly, the desire to touch Black women’s hair is a left a little untouched, pun intended, but that really didn’t really seem to be the point. The point was that Black women have the right to dictate how their hair (and implicitly their bodies) are treated and that that right should be actively acknowledged by everybody. In the end, as long as Black women feel like their bodies belong to them and not anybody else – because they do, in case you thought otherwise – I’m pretty content and I imagine that many Black women are content as well.
I didn’t link to a lot of articles within this post, but I did read a few before I wrote this. Most of them disagreed with me, but they’re worth reading anyway.
Interview with Antonia Opiah (creator of the exhibit)