Credit: Tiko Giorgadze via Wikimedia Commons
It is not news that white people need to stop touching our hair.
There have been countless articles, songs, and even a computer game protesting this utter disrespect of bodily consent.
As a mixed race woman with “ethnic” hair, I have been asked countless times, by people across genders and races, if they can touch it. Sometimes I say yes, sometimes, no.
Once, while I was leaving a restaurant, an older white man who had been staring at me during my entire meal yelled, “I LOVE YOUR HAIR!!!” as I walked out, reaching out with his hands to grab it (or me?). I flinched and drew back, but was so caught off guard that I did not tell him off — I just left. I did not want to have to tell him off. I gained a small victory, though, in realizing afterwards that it was the first time I had not said thank you when accosted, catcalled, or harassed by a man in public.
A few months earlier, a man (of color) hitting on me in a bar asked me if he could touch it, and when I asked, point-blank, “Why?” he responded by grabbing and stroking my hair.
This is why, as I have grown older, my response of “yes” is reserved only for friends and family.
It might seem counterproductive that soon after I was accepted to graduate school and turned twenty-five — two things, I had decided, signified a new chapter of my life, the second quarter of my timeline — I dyed my hair pink. And every time the color begins to fade, I re-dye it.
I consciously decide, every few weeks, that I still want my hair to be a beacon.
I grew up in a black family in Southern California, amongst women with afros, braids, poufs, and every other variation. Most of us were mixed, and light-skinned sometimes, but we were Black. We had Black hair.
When I was twelve and my body began its painful descent into puberty, my hair, once a patch of beautiful curls, began to frizz uncontrollably. I began to push it back away from my face, a devastation because I was so shy at the time, and hid behind my hair. But it was too hot. It was too big. It was too much.
I was the only girl in my class with kinky hair at school. I spent all day looking at the backs of white girls’ heads, wondering how easy my life would be if my mother and I did not have to spend hours pushing through every knot that reappeared day after day. My life would be easy, I thought, if my hair could flip like theirs, could cascade down my back, could swish and smell like the beach.
So my mother took me to the salon three or four times a year, where I would spend an entire day sitting in front of a mirror, my scalp on fire, while a hairdresser coated my hair in a white paste over and over until it was straight. I would leave looking like a white girl, feeling pretty, and in utter agony.
Finally, in my senior year of high school, I was brave enough to take the mask off, and my hair came back to life. I went to college and people told me my hair was so in. Natural hair was all the rage, and I was so lucky to be ethnic, to have hair that women like them would die for, right?
Eight years later, I dyed it pink as a reclamation of my identity as a woman of color. I dyed it pink because I spent years thinking it was ugly, and then I spent years thinking that hair dye was for white girls. It was for straight hair.
I am almost ashamed now that I did not acknowledge the scores of gorgeous black woman who have colored their hair, no matter the texture. I should have seen them earlier on, because society does not.
My hair is beautiful, although it is not an object to be touched.
My hair signals to others that I am a black woman, although that is not all I am.
Let us change the way we talk about natural hair. It is not a fad, the way I saw straight hair as a teenager, the way I was told my hair was as an adolescent.
My hair ain’t never goin’ out of style. That don’t mean you can touch it, though. It is mine.
Celine Aenlle-Rocha is a writer from Miami and Los Angeles, residing in Harlem, New York City. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction Writing at Columbia University. Her writing addresses the intersectionality of race, womanhood, and other identities, seeking to redefine our history and address the future with open minds. Follow her on Instagram.