Don’t Touch My Hair

Image description: A woman with her head thrown back

“Don’t touch my hair, cause it’s the feelings I wear” is the first line of Solange’s song of the same name. A line which as a black mixed-race teenager made a keen impression on me, evoking a feeling of pride mingled with a sense of irritation – and even anger. Why was I angry when I first heard that lyric of empowerment, the strong command: “don’t touch my hair”? Perhaps it was the absurdity of having to voice such a command in the first place and the way that it resonated with countless experiences I have had growing up. I think it was this, as well as the stirring in my stomach of an emotion. An emotion which is now familiar and which made an entrenched and permanent home deep inside of me after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery: a resentment of whiteness. Whiteness in all of its harmful glory and the pain that it has caused. This pain ranges from that which is widely discussed – like the pain of the Transatlantic slave trade, to pain which is far more everyday – like walking through a rural English village with the feeling of eyes boring into your back like a hot branding iron.

In episode 5, Series 2 of Fleabag – one of my favourite episodes – Fleabag makes an impassioned speech to the dodgy hairdresser: “Hair is everything…it’s the difference between a good day and a bad day. We’re meant to think that it’s a symbol of power, that it’s a symbol of fertility. Some people are exploited for it and it pays your fucking bills. Hair is everything.”

When I was in high school my hair was exploited by others, by myself, and by an ignorance which I later identified to be internalised racism. Everybody knows that during our high school years the currency of adolescence is popularity – it’s what we barter, borrow, and beg for. Unaware of the harm it did to my integrity, I used to abuse the power my hair held in exchange for popularity and attention. I went to school in a village in West Yorkshire which did not have the most diverse population (although it wasn’t terrible for diversity in the context of the region).

Even so, I was enough of a rarity to be fetishized by kids who were just curious about my natural Afro-Caribbean hair. I cannot count the times that a white girl would call me ‘cute’ and ask to touch it. At the time I was greedy for the attention, honoured by the ‘cute’ compliment and naïve to the fact that these girls probably went home and petted their dogs in the very same way. So I said yes. I let them touch my hair and indulged them with their ‘oh my god it’s so springy!’ and ‘it’s like candyfloss!’ and ‘why is it so greasy?’ comments. ‘It’s not greasy’, I would protest, irritated. ‘It’s just product and coconut oil.’ Yet my irritation at these girls’ lack of understanding did not prevent me from exploiting my hair again and again simply for the addictive thrill of being liked, of being seen.

When I look back now, I feel a sense of deep shame and disgust with my younger self. How could I be so weak? How could I not only allow, but actively encourage, the fetishization of my blackness? I do recognise that it is not my fault, or even the popular white girls’ faults. A far more expansive web of racism and miseducation is to blame. Yet that shame does still haunt me and complicate the love and appreciation I hold for my hair even today.

Is Fleabag right? Is hair everything? Or is to conflate my identity with my hair a further infringement upon myself, a further self-fetishization? Is Solange right? Is my hair the mirror of my feelings and my emotions? Despite these questions, I can feel that something inside of me has begun to rally against this reductionism.

At a later point in my education, I experienced a different hair-related encounter. I did Religious Studies at A-level, where we were discussing the concept of predicates. My teacher explained that a predicate is something which is essential to an object: a feature which defines that object and without which, that object would not be itself. His eventual point was that the predicate of God is existence, but to illustrate it he picked upon the class. Scanning us, his eyes landed on me and he triumphantly announced ‘so for example, the predicate of Simone would be her hair!’ The class all said ‘ahhh’ as if my hair had cast much light upon this theological detail. Since then, I have grown increasingly uncomfortable by the idea that I am predicated by my hair or in fact, by anything. Solange is right, our hair should not be touched. It is precious and beautiful and expressive. But Fleabag is wrong. My hair is not everything, it is a power which I am learning to wield with the deepest love and respect to myself, and to my brothers and sisters. But I am so much more than just my hair – it is a beautiful strength but one that does not define me.

Image Credit: Adrian Fernández via Unsplash