You Still Can’t Touch My Hair

This documentary covers a performance art exhibit entitled “You Can Touch My Hair” that took place during the summer of 2013 and the protests that followed.

The exhibit, held in Union Square of NYC, invited visitors to touch the hair of three black women holding signs of the same name.

Video Description

“Whether it’s 7-year old Tiana Parker getting sent home from school for wearing locs or Dante De Blasio’s afro being credited for giving his father a boost in the New York City mayoral race, Black hair is consistently subject to unsolicited fascination.  As the final extension of a bold public art exhibit held in New York City this summer, You Can Touch My Hair, a Short Film takes a glimpse into this fascination and how black women, who are often its subjects, feel about it.”

Producer of the film and organizer of the exhibit Antonia Opiah says

“We wanted to draw the parallel between the very literal display, and the not so literal displays that happen in everyday life.”

Antonia explains more about the exhibit in this article.

I can really relate to that statement, as I too have experiences in which random people who are white, reach out to touch my hair without permission and at times, seemingly out of nowhere.

A while ago, I went out to the parking lot to meet a person who was delivering some food for lunch. We talked for a moment as he went over the order and shared some other details about current events, sports, or something.

What I remember most is noticing how quiet it got while I was signing the receipt. I thought to myself “where did this guy go?” As I turned my head around to look for him I felt some resistance. This man had grabbed a few of my locs and begin to talk to me about how cool he thought they were.


Curious or not among other factors, the random reaching, grabbing and touching connects to a history that can be lost by some, but never forgotten by others; a history of being set up on the auction block, grabbed, inspected like animals, and sold off .

mother and her daughter on the auction block_jpg

I have to be clear in saying that as a man, and even as a man of color, I have no say in how women and in this case women of color respond to their experiences of oppression. The film itself highlighted the individual voices of members of a collective group that can often feel silenced.

The “You Can Touch My Hair” exhibit itself really remind me to be ever mindful in my own work of the importance of reciprocity in relationships while working toward social justice with members of groups where I may be privileged at their expense because sometimes, action projects aimed at raising awareness or starting conversations can place people from targeted groups in a literal fishbowl or petri dish where they are called upon to act, or share experiences that may be (or have been) painful to them.

In this way they are placed on “display” so that folks from privileged groups can come and learn, but not offer anything of themselves, and then leave and return to their own lives without having a commitment to do anything differently.

Like being on vacation.

Sure, it might be fine for the folks who don’t have to experience this type of oppression on a regular basis, but what about those who do?

Although making progress in improving intergroup relations does require us all to be vulnerable , there really are ways to learn about race without putting those in the targeted position up as sole representatives of their group.

I think one way people who are white can work against racism is to talk with other people who are white.

People who are white can dialogue with other white people who might have seen this as a golden opportunity to touch a person who was Black’s hair about what it’s like not to have to deal with these issues,  some pitfalls they have experienced in “trying to touch it”, and the impact those experiences have had on their approach since then.

People who are white who understand how demeaning, marginalizing, and othering the experience of petting, grabbing a person who is black’s hair is, can educate other people who are white about it.

Don’t use that  free pass to exercise privilege/false ownership on the bodies of people who are Black.

Use the opportunity to address that privilege and begin answering questions like:

“How can we begin to repair these wounds?”

“How can we learn about others without demeaning their humanity?”

And no. You still can’t touch my hair.


From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins, MSW, LLMSW



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Written by

I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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