I was trying to comb out my hair in the change room after my swim today. The shrinkage (and the accompanying struggle) was real. Chlorine and my hair (and my eyes for that matter) are not friends. I was just trying to detangle it and then I would wash it when I got home.
In the mirror, I noticed an elderly Chinese lady who was drying her own hair just staring at my hair. I had a feeling she was going to touch it. While I don’t plan on becoming a petting zoo any time soon, I realize Black hair is a fascinating phenomenon and by the way she was staring, I assumed this was the closest she’d ever been to hair like mine. She spoke no English, but she touched my hair and then touched hers as if to say, “Your hair is so curly and mine is so straight!”
She then took the comb from my hand and started to style my hair. I didn’t relent because 1) I was kinda shocked 2) I didn’t know what I was going to do with my hair anyways 3) I was interested to see how she would style it and 4) she was gentle and she didn’t pull my hair. So here I was crouching in the middle of the change room while this little old lady hovered over me doing my hair and others went about their business.
She styled it into a nice shapely afro. It honestly looked better than anything I was going to do. I gave her a big smile and said, “Thank you.”
When I saw her while leaving the building, she smiled and gestured as if to say, “I’m not a hairstylist.” And I said, “It’s alright, because it looks good!” I gave her a thumbs up, and we both went our separate ways.
Sometimes I have some of the most random, but pleasant interactions during my day.
As Black women, we talk a lot about how problematic it is when people think they can just touch your hair without your permission. Some people may argue that this lady just wanted to play in my hair like I was some human black Barbie doll. Whether or not that was the case, we both received an educational cultural/racial lesson and experienced an intergenerational moment of human interaction that I think can validly override any apprehension I may have of people touching my hair.
I honestly don’t think she controlled my space or imposed her views on me at all. My point is that sometimes (but only sometimes) we can be so über sensitive about race and space that we miss beauty… Sometimes we can be so critical — too critical — of innocent interactions and well-intentioned actions that we miss the big picture and the potential for an instructive moment because our pride and anti-racist/feminist/anti-colonial thoughts get in the way (ironically).
I’m thinking that perhaps not every instance of hair-touching-by-strangers is necessarily a bad one.
Originally published at simonesamuels.wordpress.com on September 2, 2015.