New York Exhibit Lets People Explore Black Hair. Enlightening or Offensive?

Has anyone ever asked if they can touch your hair? How do you react? (Photo: Getty Images)People often ask Antonia Opiah, the founder of un'ruly, if they can touch her hair. Sometimes she says yes. But an encounter in Paris, during which she had to ask a stranger to step away, made her wonder what others got out of the experience.

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"She actually really got in there, so I had to curtly make her stop," Opiah wrote in an article for The Huffington Post last week. "I wonder if she got any satisfaction from it and if so, what kind? Did my hair feel good on her hands? Was some sort of curiosity finally satisfied? Or was I simply just a Saturday night amusement?"

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Figuring that curiosity—not ignorance or rudeness—was at the root of the issue, Opiah decided to stage an exhibit for people who are wondering what different types of African American hair feels like. The interactive show, called "You Can Touch My Hair," launched on Thursday; a second staging is set from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 8, in Union Square, New York City. (If you'd like to attend, you can RSVP on Facebook.)

After years of watching my own children cringe when strangers reached toward their little heads (and after years of having random people feel free to run their fingers through my own frizzy curls), my first reaction to Opiah's experiment was: No. Freaking. Way. It's 2013. Why should people of color have to do time in a petting zoo to satisfy other people's curiosity? Just wondering what someone's hair feels like doesn't give you the right to check it out for yourself. What's next, a "You Can Squeeze My Breast" exhibit so people can discover that not all breasts are alike?

But, Opiah points out that, in the United States, black hair is more than just hair.

"It’s been a suppressed racial characteristic, a symbol of political protest and political change," she writes at un'ruly. "And most recently [it's been] the cause of some very awkward and offensive situations."

"To be honest I have a lot of questions about my hair, especially now that it's natural and the plethora of natural hair tutorials on YouTube shows that a lot of black women have questions about their natural hair too," she wrote at The Huffington Post. "Black hair is unique. It requires different care techniques and routines. And in a country where we primarily see commercials for white hair products and magazines that mainly cover white beauty topics and TV shows that mainly feature white characters, we, and those curious about us, have to find information about our hair from other sources."

At her first event, three African American women stood in the street holding signs that read "YOU CAN TOUCH MY HAIR." Their hair was of different textures -- one rocked a gorgeous, puffy halo, one had thin, golden dreadlocks, one had sleek hair that looked chemically straightened. As you can see in the video, white people were not the only ones who were curious about what their hair felt like.

Still, when it comes to satisfying curiosity and asking if you can touch someone -- anyone's -- hair, there are few things all people need to keep in mind.

"Ask this five-word request when you understand that it carries the weight of hundreds of years of being told our hair is unacceptable and now being told that it's a curiosity," Opiah warns. "Ask it when you understand that enlightening you about our hair is a responsibility no one individual wants to bear."

"Ask it when you've actually developed a relationship with a person to the point where you don't have to doubt their response to the request," she continues. "Because if you're actually friends with a person, 'Can I touch your hair?' is a question you don't have to ask because you know that you can either just do it or know to steer clear. And if you don't know any black people that well enough, maybe you should be asking yourself a different question."