Reni Eddo-Lodge, Thursday 13 June 2013 04.59 EDT
You Can Touch My Hair is a direct descendant of the Hottentot Venus
An art exhibit where black women invited strangers to touch their hair perpetuates racial objectification, whatever the intention
The intricacies of black history are sought out rather than taught, so you would be forgiven for not knowing who Saartjie Baartman was. An African woman sold into slavery, Baartman was brought to London in 1810 as the “Hottentot Venus” and exhibited as a freak of nature in London and France. After her death, she was dissected like a scientific specimen. Fast forward to last week, when You Can Touch My Hair debuted in New York City. Billed as an interactive public art exhibit, the event staged by Un’ruly featured three black women. Each stood in Union Square holding black and white signs that invited the general public to sink their fingers into their curls.
Drawing similarities between Baartman’s maltreatment and an event centred on exhibiting black women’s hair might seem extreme, but we can’t separate the actions of today from the stories of the past. Consider how, in both circumstances, being the physical embodiment of a deviation from a norm renders these women public objects. In a world where skin-lightening creams still exist, and blackness is consistently left outside of mainstream beauty standards, the “can I touch your hair?” question cleverly masquerades itself as a compliment.
This fascination with black hair is a gendered one. When it comes to cuts and styles, black women bear the brunt of the hair-touching burden. Similar to issues such as street harassment, these seemingly minor incidents throw up the question of space, power and ownership. But who is the exhibit, and who is the observer?
Unsurprisingly, criticism of the event has been rife. The most common retaliation to You Can Touch My Hair is that the event is little more than a crude human petting zoo. Though coverage of the first day notes that a number of black people took part in the hair touching too, it’s clear that the aim of the event was an invitation for white people to explore the curiosities of black hair.
Perhaps it was helpful for these three black women to take one for the team, in part satisfying those neocolonial curiosities that manifest in our culture after empire. This exoticising comes from a place that positions black hair as the other – deemed unusual, and therefore worthy of impermissible grabbing. There is something very specific about navigating the entitlement that comes with this. It’s usually done with a grin and good intentions. The question will come mid-arm stretch: “Can I touch your hair?”
This may be because kinky black hair is rarely seen in our collective cultural consciousness. The face of power is rarely wearing an afro. Blackness is too often tokenised, so it’s no wonder that curiosity about black attributes is abundant. At a glance, women’s magazines in your local newsagent will show you a white-centric display of desirable womanhood, with hair that is sleek, glossy, long and ultimately straight. Taking one example, British Vogue has had just three black women on its front cover in the past five years. Without making judgments on their agency, it is clear that the structures in which Jourdan Dunn, Rihanna and Beyoncé are working in demand them to conform to white beauty standards. The stark nature of this couldn’t be more obvious than Rihanna’s cover, which saw her paler than usual, and wearing a blonde wig.
No discussion about the politics of black hair would be complete without taking into account the power constructs that place representations of blackness on the margins of the mainstream. Indeed, the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie insisted that “black women’s hair is political” when talking about her latest bookearlier this year. Black hair, by definition, brings with it a huge range of choices, but we live with a dominant narrative that insists the only choice is straightness.
Women volunteered their hair for the You Can Touch My Hair event. Similar to arguments surrounding the objectification of the (mostly white) women who on appear on the Sun newspaper’s page 3, the word “choice” is laboured heavily. This misses the point. Like page 3, the fact that nobody was directly harmed in the making of these images does not negate the fact that the ethos of You Can Touch My Hair perpetuates racial objectification.
For some time now, feminism has been fighting a heterosexual gendered objectification that reduces women to object status in order to gratify male sexual feelings. We must also make peace with the fact that, in the context of touching hair, this racialised objectification reduces black and brown people to objects in order to gratify cultural curiosity. As long as whiteness is positioned as the norm, this will always be the case.