Yes, you can touch my hair. If you ask.
But, before you put your hands on my head, understand that my hair has a history. My first trip to the infamous black hair salon was at the age of four. I remember hair stylists raising my chair to its highest level because I was too short for them to reach my head. Hours were spent in the hair salon once a week and, from age four to 14, the routine never changed—shampoo, blow dry, straighten. At least two hours were spent under the mercy of the torture device known as the hot comb. Trips to the hair salon were so regular that my natural hair was essentially a stranger. The only time I spent with that familiar stranger was the half hour period between shampoo and straighten. On every Saturday afternoon, I willingly allowed my naturally wild and poofy curls and coils to be transformed into the flat monotony of someone else.

In the eighth grade, the desire for straight hair was so fervid that I convinced my mom to let me get a perm. A perm, in the world of black hair, chemically straightens your hair—permanently. The hair stylist essentially massages chemicals onto your hair, waits 20 minutes, then washes it out. I left the salon after my first treatment more confident and prideful than I had ever been; no longer would a humid Tennessee day return my hair to its natural state. The texture of my hair was forever changed. I finally had the long, silky, tangle-free hair that I considered beautiful.

The excitement of these new treatments came to a screeching halt a few weeks later, when my touch-up stylist left the chemicals on my scalp for too long. With tears running down my face, I told the stylist that it felt as if my head was on fire. After numerous wash-outs and no decrease in pain level, it became clear that the damage was done. Upon inspection, I found my scalp, ears and hairline covered in chemical burns. I had to chop my hair off and begin anew. Despite my new short ‘do, I was still determined to have straight hair; so, I returned to my old wash, blow dry, straighten routine.

The summer before I left Tennessee for Maine, one of my best friends convinced me to get a weave. She praised the ease that weaves allow and noted that I would no longer have to put effort into straightening my hair. I got a weave about a week before leaving home and hated it within a few weeks. For one, it was heavy. Its weight heightened the artificiality of its presence, making me constantly feel as if I was trying to be someone that I was not. I consistently received compliments; however, I always felt as if I couldn’t take pride in something that was not really mine. The turning point came around early November of that first semester, mostly due to readings assigned in my first year seminar, “Racism”.  The more I learned about systemic racism and the media—issues that were never discussed in my high school—the more I began to question why I so badly desired straight hair. It’s certainly not rocket science. America is stuck on a Eurocentric standard of beauty and my Southern, mostly white, all-girls preparatory school was no exception to that.

I had the weave removed over Thanksgiving Break but continued to straighten until the next spring. While home for Spring Break, I cut off my heat-damaged ends and finally began to love my natural hair. For me, natural hair is not only an expression of self-acceptance, but also one of black pride. Black people, especially women, have been labeled subhuman, ugly and undesirable for centuries. Black women’s bodies were considered the property of white men when contact between the races first occurred—unfortunately, not much has changed since. In finally accepting my hair and all of its blackness, I am giving the middle finger to the notion that beauty means whiteness. I am not saying that wearing a weave equals self-hate or a lack of self-acceptance; many of the most socially aware and self-loving people I know wear weaves and I fully respect that choice. Personally, however, my weave made me recognize how damaged the relationship between myself and my hair was, and that the cause of that damage was largely due to the warped beauty standards of my environment.

I understand that, especially on an elite college campus in Maine, my hair is out of the ordinary. It’s fluffy, coily and soft to the touch. It’s black hair. I understand the desire to touch my hair. But I am not your pet. I am not your property. People seem shocked when I slap their hands away from my head, but I can’t understand why. Would you randomly stroke the hair of a random blonde girl that you don’t know? I doubt it. Do you think that it’s socially acceptable to touch me without permission simply because my hair is different than yours, or because it’s “exotic” enough that I must understand? I once asked a boy why he thought he could touch me without my permission and he replied matter-of-factly, “It looks cool. I figured you were used to it.” I already know that I’m in the minority, and I’m well aware of the fact that I’m different. When I feel someone’s hands on my head without permission and hear the reactive coos and “woahs”, I quickly remember why I used to subject myself to the pain of heat and chemicals in order to achieve anonymity. Touching my hair without permission, no matter how well-intentioned, is othering. I’ve had countless discussions with other black women about how objectifying and alienating these experiences can be.

Contrary to my current tone, I am not a spiteful person. If you ask to touch my hair, I will most likely say yes. Let’s be real, having your hair stroked feels even better than drinking seven Lime-a-Ritas. However, if you touch me without asking, don’t be shocked or offended when I slap your hand away. It’s not personal, but what you’re doing certainly is.