Anita Mechler: Hair Touching

I was listening to NPR one morning when this story came on about two sisters Antonia and Abigail Opiah who staged a public art exhibit in New York, featuring three black models holding signs that read, “You can touch my hair.” While many people interacted with the models, others staged protests across the street, and engaged in online responses such as this. It was interesting for me to read the follow-up pieces by Antonia Opiah and by Ijeoma Oluo.

These articles got me thinking about hair, but also about how the discussion of race is so often portrayed as black and white, even by people who are multiracial (see Oluo’s piece). This leaves out so many of us from the conversation, especially those of us who also have “unusual” hair and “oddly mixed” familial backgrounds. Can we just stop and just think a little more complexly about race in America? I’m not going to throw statistics at you or more hyperlinks to stress the point that multiracial/mixed cultural people have existed since the time two different groups of people have met each other, the offspring of which have been ignored or made to feel invisible or expected to assimilate, whether or not they were conceived willingly into this world.

ImagePeople usually start with the question: “What are you?” after they’ve looked at me a little more closely and realize that I might not fit into their easy description of “white girl”. First, my hair is very dark (now with a little white sprinkled in) and very very curly; this is probably their first clue. My body is an incongruous mix of skinny arms and legs and then very round shapes around the middle. My arms and legs tan in the summer, bringing out the olive underneath, and the rest of my body and face burn to a crisp red, if I’m not too careful about sunscreen.

Their follow up question is usually:  “Which half is which?” and by this, they mean that they want to know what my parents “are.” If I’m feeling snarky, I respond with: “Do you mean the top half of my body or the bottom?”, “Do you mean the left side or the right side?”. This usually makes them laugh uncomfortably.

If I feel like answering and respond that my mom is of Mexican descent and my dad of French-German, they generally seem satisfied with that answer. Unfortunately, it makes me keenly aware of people’s need to delineate and bifurcate my mixed experience into two easily manageable “halves”. My childhood, the food I ate, what my body grew into, how people have reacted to me for my entire life cannot be made into a 50/50 equation.

I can’t and I won’t separate my history or choose between the heritage of my parents. Hair is just one part of personal agency over our own bodies and our histories and our identities. Yes, I am part of the “you can touch my hair” camp but ONLY if you ask me first and when I’m actually in the mood to let you do it. It isn’t offensive for people to ask to touch my hair because it usually starts a conversation. It helps me feel less invisible if I can talk about my heritage instead of being forced to possess whichever identity someone wants to assign me. It helps that people usually approach me by complimenting my hair first and they generally don’t just reach out and touch it without my permission (albeit, on a few occasions).

Once, I was on a school trip to Mexico and people kept asking me which part of Mexico my family was from. Put on the spot, I lied because I felt like an imposter, even though I was visiting Mexico as an American citizen. I told them we were from Jalisco because this seemed to make the most sense at the time. I now tell people that my family is from Texas and despite all of the punch lines that might end in “Texas”, I am very proud to be from there. Since then, I have vowed to be honest about my identity no matter how strongly someone wants to fit me in a box for their comfort.

The most important thing is that we create an open forum for discussions; where people have agency over the telling of their own histories without the negation of those around them. No one can ever know what’s like to inhabit the skin, hair, childhood, familial and social relations of another person. We should create places where we listen before accusing and ask before touching.

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