Recently CNN did an article entitled ”Can I touch it?’ The fascination with natural, African American hair’. It included the following quote from blogger Los Angelista (real name, Liz);
“Because my black ancestors may have been your ancestors’ property, and had to smile while they got touched in ways they didn’t want to, but I am not YOUR property and never will be so you’d best move your hand away from me.”
A reader notified me this morning that the quote was taken out of context, and apparently Liz, who describes herself as a ‘Black/Irish MidWesterner’, was not notified that the quote would be used.
She wrote a response to the CNN article, and I’ve included it here.
Hi, I’m Liz. No, you still can’t touch my hair.
Since I stopped chemically straightening my hair in 2007, I’ve been surprised by the number of people who’ve felt that they have the right to put their hands on my head and pet me. I’ve written about it–and occasionally joked about it–for the past few years. Well, Monday morning I woke up to my Blackberry buzzing because friends were sending me a CNN article that quoted and linked to “No, You Can’t Touch My Hair,” a piece I wrote in September 2009 about a particularly disturbing incident at Los Angeles’ Griffith Park pool:
“…a woman, a white woman, approached me, her hand extended toward my head. “Ooh your hair is sooo pretty. Can I touch it?”
I immediately leaned away out of her reach and said, “No.”
Her response? A shocked and outraged, “Are you serious? I can’t touch your hair?”
“No, you can’t,” I replied. I guess she’s never seen my #donotpetmyafro hashtag on Twitter.
Indeed, she had the nerve to look confused and offended as she asked, “Why not?”
Really, lady? You want me to explain to you why I don’t want you to touch my hair? Let’s see…
Because you’re a STRANGER.
Because I’m not an animal in the zoo.
Because this is my body and I don’t have to let anybody touch any part of it, EVER, if I don’t want to.
Because my black ancestors may have been your ancestors property, and had to smile while they got touched in ways they didn’t want to, but I am not YOUR property and never will be so you’d best move your hand away from me.”
I didn’t actually say any of that to her in the moment. I simply told her no. I was polite but firm–I don’t feel that I have to allow people to experiment on me, or have a cultural experience when they decide they want to have one, or whatever that woman thought she was doing.
The CNN article only included the last thought about slavery. Not the context and not the woman’s response, which was to first rant–in front of her child–“I’m a nice person and I try so hard to be nice to THEM, but I’m tired of trying to be nice to bitchy black women.”
Then she continued griping, in earshot of my sons, “All I wanted to do was touch her hair. What’s the big deal about that? She should be happy I asked to touch her hair.”
I received a lot of email from women thanking me for what I wrote, because they’ve had similar experiences, but I also received a lot hate mail today for saying that the incident had anything to do with race.
At the crux of most of the anger is that I connected what happened to the cultural legacy of slavery. I guess I could’ve related it to Jim Crow instead of slavery–but the larger point, which I know is not popular to talk about, is that there has long been a historical and cultural expectation in this country that black people must meet the demands or whims of white people. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that saying no to a white person could get a black person beaten or killed. Some might say that, depending on where you live, that’s still the case. Or, at least, there are serious repercussions for doing so.
I watched The Color Purple a couple of weeks ago, and today I realized that the reaction of the woman at the pool reminds me of this scene where the mayor’s wife asks Oprah if she’d like to be her maid. Oprah, pretty bluntly, says no.
Of course, everything’s not exactly the same between the two situations. I didn’t swear at the woman at the pool and her husband didn’t run up to slap me. But her shock that I refused to let her pet me matched the shock of the mayor’s wife when Oprah declined the chance to be her maid.
Some of the emails I received today remind me of the crowd that gathers around Oprah towards the end of this scene, yelling at her. I’ve read that I’m a) I’m a racist bitch that wants to see racism in everything, b) the poor woman was just trying to be nice and give me a compliment but I’m ungrateful, and c) my husband probably hates me and spends his time f*(&#@g white women to get away from me.
And those are some of the nicer emails.
I get that some people don’t believe asking to touch a black woman’s hair is racism. I also understand that some folks don’t think that what the woman at the pool expressed after I declined her attempt to pet me is racism either.
I said it two years ago, and I’ll say it again now–the way she flipped out and referred to me as a “bitchy black woman,” the way she said I should be grateful she even noticed my afro…I strongly believe those things are rude and racist. And yes, I do believe asking to touch a black woman’s hair has roots in racism. People may not intend to be racist, but there’s a larger context, sometimes subconscious, that goes beyond the mere action.
Given the racial climate in this country, I don’t know why I’m surprised that so many people seem to feel that I should’ve just acquiesced to this woman’s so-called “good intentions,” and allowed her to feel my hair. However, let me be clear: while my parents raised me to be an advocate for racial unity, they also taught me that I’m inherently noble, and that I deserve respect–which means that no, you still can’t touch my hair. Please don’t ask.
You can find Liz at her blog Los Angelista.