My friends and family asked if I was nervous about traveling to South Africa with my boyfriend to meet his family over Christmas. I wasn’t. What I was anxious about was getting there, which involved 28 hours of travel, including a nine-hour layover in Saudi Arabia before heading to Johannesburg.
During the long layover, we watched TV shows my boyfriend had downloaded and slept, and I spent a good hour crying to The Color Purple (New Broadway Cast Recording). When it was time to board the plane, I was actually surprised that the time had passed so quickly.
She grabbed a handful, lifted them, and said, “Oh, so hard.”
When flying, I like to leave my hair down. It’s just more comfortable to sleep with it that way, and it’s certainly better for my neck. My locs are thinner than most people’s: I have about 160 of them (I know you’re not supposed to count), and they can get heavy if I’m not sitting properly. Before we took off, a man who was also waiting in line for the restroom told me how cool my hair was. I thanked him, appreciative of any compliment after 19 hours of travel.
The flight to Johannesburg was uneventful—until we deplaned. My boyfriend and I were among the last people to exit the plane. Being the gentleman that he is, he grabbed my bags along with his and walked ahead of me. Following behind him, I passed two flight attendants. Having not brushed my teeth in almost 24 hours, I smiled at them, lips closed, nodding a thank-you.
It was supposed to be a polite and brief exchange, until one of the flight attendants, an East Asian woman, stuck her hand into the curtain of my hanging locs, grabbed a handful, lifted them, and said, “Oh, so hard.”
I pulled my head away from her hand. The closed-lipped smile I’d worn seconds earlier fell flat and I stared at her, hoping to convey my displeasure and irritation. She returned my look with a delighted smile, completely oblivious. I closed my eyes briefly before maneuvering my way out of the aisle and off the plane, saying nothing.
Ugh to her ignorance. And ugh to her putting her curiosity before my humanity.
As I processed what had just happened, and everything sunk in, the word that came to my head was the only one that manifests when I’m repulsed by some human behavior: ugh. Ugh to her ignorance. And ugh to her putting her curiosity before my humanity. The reach-and-grab not only took away my voice and agency in agreeing or disagreeing to be touched in such an invasive way, but her comment about the condition of my hair added insult to injury.
The only thing that kept me from verbalizing that “ugh” was the thought that it was her own simultaneous ignorance and excitement about Black hair that had her beside herself. That, and the fact that compared to her own hair, mine is harder than hers because it’s thicker than hers. But the explanation of that would have required a lesson about locs that, frankly, she didn’t deserve to learn after she decided to experience my hair without talking to the person connected to it. So I sighed deeply and stepped off of the plane.
The instant I caught up with my boyfriend I told him what happened, waiting for him to share my outrage.
“Oh yeah, she grabbed mine too,” he said nonchalantly.
“That didn’t bother you?”
I can’t remember what he said, but he offered some explanation about cultural differences, lack of exposure to Black people, and general curiosity.
We aren’t a tourist attraction.
My boyfriend travels to Japan every year and is more accustomed to being gawked at than I am. Still, his explanations, while valid, didn’t make me feel any better. This flight attendant wasn’t the first person to take her interest too far. In college at the University of Missouri, I was with a group of Black women who had just finished conducting a National Association of Black Journalists meeting when visitors from our sister school in China asked if they could take pictures of us. We obliged begrudgingly, not wanting to insult guests of our university. We stood in front of the lens but didn’t smile because none of the visitors seemed to be interested in learning about us: they were only interested in taking pictures of our hair. Just a couple of weeks ago, a group of my coworkers, all Black women, was sitting outside eating lunch in the Wall Street area when an East Asian man, without saying a single word, pointed his camera in our direction and started clicking away. I put my hands over my braided locs and looked at my lap. We aren’t a tourist attraction.
The fascination is real. Where is it culturally acceptable to grab an entire handful of a stranger’s hair? I spent the rest of the shuttle bus ride on the tarmac from the plane to the terminal thinking of all the ways I could have played that moment a bit differently:
- I imagined sticking my own hand under her cap, tousling strands of hair that she had so neatly swept back into a bun and returning that same oblivious smile.
- A stern, unsmiling, “Please don’t touch my hair.”
- I saw myself taking an empathetic route. “Yes, Black hair is diverse and amazingly textured, but refrain from touching it.”
- I could have scolded her. “This hair is attached to my scalp, you know? What you just did was very rude.”
- I saw myself putting her on the spot and asking, “Now, why would you do that?”
- Or I could have addressed that “hard” comment: “No, it’s not hard; it’s different. It’s Black hair.”
Of all of the responses I came up with, my favorite would have been a combination of a few of these, a thorough explanation of her error, a slight reprimand, and a warning for the future:
“Look, I get it. I’m Black. I’ve had Black hair all my life, and I still find it incredibly fascinating. I want to stick my hands in Black women’s hair. All. The. Time. But what you just did to me was a violation. It made me feel like some type of pet, an animal. As a fellow admirer of Black hair, I’m all about sharing the knowledge. Had you asked, I would have gladly allowed you to touch my hair. I would have explained how it got this way, and perhaps that would have answered the question of why it feels ‘hard’ to you. But now that you’ve already copped your feel, I just want you to know that you should nev-er do what you just did to me to another Black woman, ever again.”
If, God forbid, this happens to me again, I’ll be prepared. And if it ever happens to anyone of you, feel free to borrow that little prepackaged speech, because in the moment, shock might leave you regrettably speechless.