Thursday, March 25, 2010

Race, Gender, and Unwanted Touch

Allison Keye's essay on National Public Radio, "Keep Your Hands Off the Hair," is about the frequent and strange compulsion of others to touch her hair. An African American who does not chemically straighten her hair, Keyes seeks to understand and explain the relationship of a 400-years-old racialized history of assumed permission to her recoil. The essay does not discuss the aspect of gender as another assumption of free access to her body, but it surely exists and is germane to our discussions in class. I am particularly reminded of Diego de Landa's detailed description of Mayan women's bathing and beauty rituals in his Account of Things in Yucatan. What connections do you make?


  1. Carrie Barbagallo

    I do not by any means mean to make the issue she brings up of whites still trying to power over the African-American people in what I'm about to say. I myself have bright red hair (or orange, or whatever color word you feel is appropriate). Since red hair is not as common as blonde or brunette hair people comment, compliment and stand in awe of my hair. I am okay with that, comment away. My problem comes in, like Allison Keyes, when people try to touch my hair. I can almost understand more when someone would want to touch Keyes' hair because of the textural aspect, but mine is solely for the color.
    I will walk out of the bathroom stall in a community bathroom to see people walking towards me with their hands out to touch my hair complimenting it. Which, personally, I find to be incredibly disgusting, have you washed your hands yet?
    Returning to the actual essay that Keyes wrote, I agree that it is incredibly disrespectful for one person to place their hands on a stranger without first attaining consent. I am involved in C.A.R.E. (Campus Assault Response-- a 24/7 Sexual Assault and Intimate Partner Violence Helpline) on campus and try to bring awareness to sexual assault and harassment. JMU's statement about sexual assault includes ANY UNWANTED TOUCHING. That means if you are at a party and you touch the thigh of someone you are dancing with, and it made him or her uncomfortable, that is considered sexual assault, whether or not it was intentional, at JMU.
    As far as de Landa's Account of Things in Yucatan and the Mayan women's bathing and beauty rituals, it reminds me that people need to shatter their cultural lenses. I feel like a lot of Keyes' problem with people touching her hair could be prevented if other people shattered their cultural lenses. They are curious because she looks different. Not only is she African-American, but also has different hair. In a sense I can see how someone could think that because they are touching and commenting on her hair they may think they are making her feel better, but because they are not shattering their lens OR thinking about a simplistic thing like personal space, Keyes feels violated.

  2. Delaney Tomczak

    I think this is more of an invasion of privacy than just a problem of race. In middle school I went to a school predominantly of other races than cuacasion. There, my hair was reached at for all the time for being silky, and smooth. Likewise as I read the comments below the article, there was one of a girl's father going to Asia and being touched for his blonde hair. I believe it is more an issue of curiosity getting the best of people and not realizing that they are in fact invading anothers' space. I also think that gender affects this. More commonly, women are likely to touch another's hair than men...not saying men do not engage in this but hair is a more "significant" factor for some women than men typically.

    This relates to de Landa's Account of things in Yucatan and the women bathing becuase he too admired they way they looked and how thei hair was done...most likely not becuase it was done with perfection, but more likely becuase of his curiousity seeing hair and looks different from his own culture. As the comment before suggested, it really is a problem of removing one's 'cultural lens' to realize that just becuase something is different for ONE person/culture, doesn't mean its a huge difference to the world.

  3. Heather Allen

    I feel like this is not just an issue of race, but also an issue of privacy. No matter what the circumstance I feel like it is extremely inappropriate to touch someone without permission, especially in the case of Allison Keyes, where it was a complete stranger. Just because something looks interesting doesn't mean it can be looked at and played with like it is on display in a museum.
    I definitely see the connection to Diego DeLanda's Account of Things in Yuccatan. I disliked that DeLanda had such an authoritarian look on the way the Mayans were being handled. Same instance with Keyes, she was objectified and not treated as a person when someone touched her hair. That is how DeLanda and the other Spanish conquistadors treated the Mayans, like objects.

  4. Tuba Ahmed


    I think that although Keye’s acknowledges touching one’s hair is both a privacy AND a race issue, I think the latter is more fundamental to address. Keye’s calls attention to the seemingly age-old idea that whites believed they had full access to a black person’s body. Although Keye’s acknowledges that touching one’s hair is not as bad as history has otherwise proven in the context of institutions such as slavery in particular, one can draw the parallel between slavery and touching one’s hair to be disrespect and degradation. These two elements are present when someone decides to touch your hair (whether it is out of pure curiosity, or the fact that you are of a “lesser” race).

    I think Keye’s post is especially important because we tend to overlook things like touching someone’s hair as completely trivial, but when these things are contextualized to ideas of cultural insensitivity of the past, it becomes strikingly apparent that in some ways, we are still stuck to ideas that we think we’ve progressed from.

    Keye’s post relates to De Landa’s account of women in the Yucatan because it reminds us that we should continue to separate exoticism from reality—I.E. the undeniable inclination to touch an afro puff should not outweigh your realistic conceptions of whether it would be respectful to do so or not.

  5. Kayla Hirschmugl (extra credit commentary)
    This is a tricky essay to comment on. After reading the essay in its entirety, I agree with the three comments above mine. I agree that it IS a privacy issue, and I like the analogy, “I see it as a violation as unwanted as those who approach pregnant women — hands out — and start rubbing their bellies.” The racial aspect of it can be seen differently is every country, for instance as one person said under it, In Asia his blonde hair gets grabbed all the time. People are always fascinated at what is different than their norm. However that is no excuse to reach out and invite yourself to touch someone else.
    I can see the relation between De Landa’s Account of things in Yuccatan. When we first read that excerpt, the scene where he is watching the women bathe stood out to me. I found it so odd that one moment you are accounting the brutal and senseless killings of the Mayans, and the next minute you are describing in detail these beautiful naked women bathing. Not to mention the fact that he spent so much time on this topic that it was sure to stand out to anyone who read it.
    All in all I think that it defiantly is a privacy issue with people who are fascinated with things that are different from their cultural norms or from that individual’s particular lifestyle. Whether it be hair, a pregnancy, race, or any other aspect.

  6. I think the hair touching is more of an invasion of privacy than of a race issue. Personally, I have naturally straight, very long blonde hair. When I tell people I do not straighten it they naturally just grab it and start to play with it in amazement. I am a Caucasian. Along with the invasion of privacy I believe people want to touch other people's hair because they are curious. I know I can never have my hair look like the picture from the article, so I would be curios to know how it feels. Similarly, people are curious how my straight hair is natural; therefore, they want to touch it to see how it differs from their ironed straight hair.
    I see how it relates to Account of Things in Yucatan by DeLanda. He writes about how beautiful the women are and how he watches them bathe. It is almost as if he wants to touch them kindly, but knows he cannot. Therefore, it results in rape. The women are touched even though most of them probably do not want to be; the women are not asked if it is okay to have sex with the men, just like people do not ask to tough Allison Keye's hair.

  7. I think that DeLanda's account relates to Keyes' issue of people touching her hair because they are both invasions of privacy. I think that in each case the people who invade the others space present assumptions about gender and race. DeLanda's descriptions of the women bathing and their beauty rituals seems to take the view that women are inferior to men, weak, and vulnerable. DeLanda takes advantage of this opposite sex in a way by watching them strip down naked, much like people take advantage of touching African American women's hair. It is all because people assume that they are allowed to do so. I think that as far as the discussion of the women's hair in each account, it shows people viewing through their own cultural lens. DeLanda describes the women's hair in great detail; he has a fascination with practices that differ from his own cultural norms. It is the same with people touching Keyes' hair because they are in such awe of something they are not used to, that they assume they can just touch it. Just because DeLanda finds the Mayan womens' hair "attractive" and "very becoming", and women find African American womens' hair "so cute", does not give anyone the right to touch someone else. As Keyes states, one's race and another's curiosity does not give them the right to lay their hands on the others body.

  8. I can definitely draw a connection between this article and the bathing rituals described in
    De Landa’s “Account of Things in Yucatan.” It is as though people think that if they show a
    genuine curiosity or admiration towards a ritual, physical adornment, etc. that is different from
    their own as opposed to a disgust than they automatically deserve a right to touch, question or
    observe the aforementioned as they like. However, as we have just read and most likely at one
    point or another experienced ourselves, this is certainly not the case. Even if one if one is
    engaging in such behaviors as staring, touch, questioning without the slightest intention of being
    rude, this is often not how it comes across, especially if these behaviors are done towards a
    minority. What choice does Allison Keye have but to think “would you approach a pregnant
    woman and begin rubbing her belly?” The expression, which can be said in many different ways,
    “treat others as you would like to be treated” comes to mind. To treat someone of a different
    culture/nationality different, such as by assuming that you can touch his/her hair or observe
    something so intimate as their bathing practices when you wouldn’t expect anyone to do that to
    you is to assert that you feel your nationality/culture or yourself in general to be superior to
    their’s. In doing so, we are just assuming that we have certain rights over another person, just as
    certain colonists have felt that they have rights over the natives.