,

May I touch your hair?

I recently read a book by Aja Barber called Consumed which caused me to take a long, hard look at the clothes I wear, their provenance, and how the clothing industry is helping to fuel the climate crisis. I’ve really never been into fashion and have always been good at picking out great items from charity and vintage shops and hosting clothes swap parties. Despite that, I am still a consummate consumer and I am complicit. We all are.

But that’s not what this blog post is about. I don’t normally underline when I read, but Consumed has been underlined and asterisked to high heaven. Here is a passage in the Cultural Appropriation chapter that was underlined in bold:

‘Also, white people…polite note. Hair is a touchy topic, whether it’s natural or straightened. It’s not really your business to comment or insist you like it one way or another, and please for the love of all things holy…don’t touch the hair.’

I read that a few times and then I had to close the book, because I felt the most uncomfortable sensation creeping up on me. A scene in my second novel, The Girl and the Sunbird, was coming back to me in sharp relief. It’s where the protagonist Iris moves closer to her maid Muthoni, with whom a gentle friendship has developed. ‘May I touch your hair?’ she asks.

Muthoni allows Iris to do this in exchange for being able to touch the caucasian hair of her mistress. With this physical contact, Iris acknowledges how lonely she has been in Kenya (known at the time as British East Africa.) And this is fine and true; this was set well over a hundred years ago and Iris had a terrible time living within the strictures of racist colonial Nairobi. But reading this scene now I utterly cringe.

Shouldn’t I as the author have known better? Isn’t writing something like this simply playing into negative stereotypes and culturally appropriating the hair of people of colour? One could argue that this scene may well have taken place and yes, this is also true. But isn’t it also the case that when we write, we have a responsibility to not feed into the thorny world of unconscious biases? Knowing what I know now about racism, colonialism and centuries of cultural appropriation, I need to learn from this mistake I made.

So, if I were being harsh on myself, I’d also say that I was writing an anti-colonial novel whilst simultaneously playing right into the hands of that very system. ‘Perhaps’ (I put this in inverted commas because I’m really not sure) a white person reading this passage in The Girl and the Sunbird would think nothing of it. But how about a person of colour? When Iris asks to touch Muthoni’s hair, will they recoil, or roll their eyes, or feel disgust, or simply think, great, another white person (ie both Iris and myself) playing into a system of racism.

Emma Dabiri, Irish author and academic, even had to write a book about it in her 2019 debut, Don’t Touch My Hair:

And ok, when I wrote my second novel I wasn’t so attuned to these nuances. But seriously? I was living in Kenya at the time. I was surrounded by people of colour. Did I ever ask a single Kenyan friend about sensitivity issues regarding that scene, or a number of other scenes in that book? No. I am very ashamed to say that I did not.

I’d love to know if you agree or disagree on any of the above. In particular, I’d love to hear from people of colour on this, especially if you have read The Girl and the Sunbird. Yes, I feel uncomfortable about this now but it feels right that I acknowledge it. I feel like I need to have more of these kinds of conversations that bring up discomfort for me.

I’m going to leave you with the lyrics from Solange’s song, Don’t touch my hair. Reading some of the comments beneath the YouTube video of the song just reinforces everything I have written. Here are a few of them:

  • This song is dedicated to all my white classmates who keep touching my hair
  • I hate when white people touch my hair because they start saying your hair is so fluffy and soft and cute *pat pat*
  • I’m rocking an Afro: I need to have this song playing in the background when total strangers walk up to me and try to touch my hair.
Solange

Don’t touch my hair
When it’s the feelings I wear
Don’t touch my soul
When it’s the rhythm I know
Don’t touch my crown
They say the vision I’ve found
Don’t touch what’s there
When it’s the feelings I wear

They don’t understand
What it means to me
Where we chose to go
Where we’ve been to know
They don’t understand
What it means to me
Where we chose to go
Where we’ve been to know

You know this hair is my shit,
rode the ride, I gave it time
But this here is mine
You know this hair is my shit,
rode the ride, I gave it time
But this here is mine.

Rebecca Stonehill

Thanks so much for reading this blog post. Compliment it with a reflection on how Kenya, a land of contradictions, can inspire a novel; whether the Mau Mau of 1950’s Kenya were terrorists or politcal pawns and my favourite books from authors of colour from July-September.

NB my thanks to Vera Hoffman for the picture of her braids at the top of this post.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.