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An open letter to the next stranger who touches my hair

TextHabi Diallo

Don’t do it

Solange wrote a song about it. There are published books on the topic. Yet, it still seems to be something people are unwilling to understand. Don’t touch my hair. Pretty simple, you’d think. So, why is it day after day people of colour encounter the microaggression?

The first time I viewed the gesture as derogatory, was at 13 years old on a geography school trip to Iceland. An older man walked up to me and immediately starting touching my hair. He asked to take a picture of me and even after I said no, proceeded to take one. Up until that point, I had never truly experienced the feeling of being ‘othered’. But, when you’re the only person among a group of young girls whose hair is not straight and someone is quite literally petting you, it’s hard not to.

Someone I know made the point that it may have been the first time he’d seen someone of colour, let alone someone with box braids. While it is true that many can often act from a place of innocence and curiosity, in the year 2019 we have this glorious thing by the name of the World Wide Web. It’s not my responsibility to educate anyone who is ignorant to the obvious fact that petting someone you do not know is massively degrading.

The aspect of dehumanising someone goes far beyond the sheer gesture. And before you say it’s ‘just hair’ and you ‘wouldn’t mind if someone touched your hair’ (all things I’ve heard before), it is important to realise and acknowledge that many of the reasons as to why it is wrong are embedded in history. From the time of colonialism to less than a century ago, human zoos were used as a way to objectify people of colour. The famous story of Saartje Baatman, a South African woman who spent her life in ‘freak shows’ around Europe, highlights the extent of extreme othering faced throughout history. Although she died in 1815, at the age of 26, her remains were still on display at exhibitions for over a century. It was not until 2002, when President Nelson Mandela formally asked for her remains to be returned to South Africa, that she was buried. Baatman, like many others, spent her life being viewed as a deviation from the ‘norm’ based simply on her appearance.

One of the ways ‘othering’ is distinguished is by identifying someone or something as exotic.  A few years ago in a video made by Teen Vogue, called Thing Black Girls are Tired of Hearing Amandla Stenberg said, “what you’re implying when you ask to touch my hair, is that my hair is exotic and not normal. It’s like petting a dog, just straight up dehumanising.”

We’re at a place in the world where so many people have experienced discrimination based on their hair, that laws are beginning to be put in last to prevent it. At the end of last month, the New York City Commission on Human Rights put in place new guidelines, under racial discrimination laws, which mean that anyone who violates the regulations can face a penalty up to $250,000.

However, these laws are only in New York and do not extend the everyday lives of the general public worldwide. In less diverse parts of the world, it is more likely that people do not realise the significance of their actions. Look, I get it, we all tend to call out and question things that are different from what we know. I once had someone touch my hair and ask how I “got it like that”, (I can’t help you with the DNA aspect, but coconut oil, cantu and shea butter will help – thank me later). All in all, you can be curious without the disrespectful aspect that comes with touching someone without permission.

So please, just don’t do it.


The brown girl on the Victoria line, who is simply trying to listen to SZA in peace and would prefer if you refrain from putting your hand in her scalp.

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