Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Curiouser and Curiouser

At Yo, Is This Racist?, Andrew Ti botched another one.

Black women are quite right to complain when white women think they're entitled to touch black women's hair, generally without even asking permission first, just grabbing.  I find that incredibly weird myself, being very inhibited about touching people, especially strangers.  And whites' refusal to consider that they should respect black people's boundaries is racist: it bespeaks a sense of entitlement, that They exist solely for Our entertainment and benefit.  I'd have thought that white women, who are expected to serve men in the same way, wouldn't have so much trouble grasping this, but evidently not.  Black women (or anyone else) don't even need to give a reason for not wanting to be handled.  Those who doubt this should try reading the ultra-white Miss Manners; I don't know if she's ever weighed in on this particular infraction, but as a general principle people have a right to their boundaries and to refuse, politely, to answer questions about them.  (I do remember a Hindu woman who asked MM what to say to people who grilled her about her style of dress.  The proposed answer was along the lines of "It is not my custom to discuss my appearance."  "It is not my custom to explain why you should keep your damn hands to yourself" would be a close analogue, I believe.)  Or as this blogger wrote,
I realized that, much like explaining how things work to a man who has just asked a woman if he can touch her breast and then balking when she says no, I could not be bothered to explain to another adult why my body belongs to me. When it comes to my hair, or any part of my body, if the answer is “no” that is something that you need to accept. Period. And I am not here to explain those basic facts of life to you.
Still, it is worth pointing out that this stand, which seems so commonsensical to me, seems to be a modern, Western, even specifically American one.  Just for comparison, try this passage from Before the Closet: Same-sex Love from Beowulf to Angels in America (Chicago, 1998) by Allen J. Frantzen.  As a young and closeted GI stationed in South Korea from 1971 to 1972, Frantzen
frequently spent time with Korean military and police personnel, easier for me than for many GIs because I spoke some Korean.  I used to find the demonstrative curiosity and affection of these men exciting.  In summer, sitting in a tearoom or riding on a ferry between Kanghwa and the small islands to the west, I would talk to the police or marines who regularly patrolled streets and the coastline.  Most Korean men have little body hair.  Some of the men I knew were fascinated by the hair on my arms and legs and, without asking, used to touch me.  Nobody -- least of all good-looking men in uniform -- had ever stroked my arms or legs.  They expressed delight and surprise while, in some embarrassment, I tried to explain that many Westerners were the same as me, even as I derived pleasure from this contact that differentiated me from most men, Western or Eastern [303].
One article discussing the issue reported that
White respondents online have commented that black women who have this type of reaction are being too sensitive. They counter that when they travel and are in the minority as whites, their hair draws similar curiosity. It is not meant as disrespectful.
Language like "too sensitive" is always a giveaway of offended and rebuffed privilege.  Yet it seems clear that it isn't only white people who feel entitled to touch people who look different.  I'd have to know more about the specific cultures being referred to before I could say whether such touching is "not meant as disrespectful."  Is it okay to touch other locals out of curiosity, or are only funny-looking foreigners fair game?  (This matter relates to this one, which I'm linking to partly so I'll remember to write about it later.)

But that doesn't change the fact that the black women who are complaining about white women trying to grab them aren't foreigners.  It's certainly courteous for a tourist to allow him or herself to be inspected and fondled, but it's quite another thing to be assaulted by a fellow-citizen while waiting for your double latte at Starbucks.  I'd like to ask if they touch the hair of other white women they don't know.

On the other hand, this is racist:
Hair does not mean the same thing to white women as it does to black women. Hair for us is a physical indicator of the ways in which we are different. It is no accident that the first black millionaire, Madame CJ Walker sold hair care products. Part of female beauty has always included long flowing locks, and for black women who have  gravity defying hair, that refuses to be tamed, this can be extremely problematic. To mess with our hair, is to mess with your safety; much of who we are is invested in our beautiful audacious locks. 
It's racist because it assumes that white women's hair has no significance for them.  Two prominent early warning signals of racism are 1) positing an absolute divide between one group and another; and 2) ignoring the differences within each group, which usually are greater than the differences between them.  Not all white women assign equal power to their hair (neither do all black women), but haircare products for white women are a major part of commercial advertising.  (Does she or doesn't she?  Beautiful hair Breck.  And so on.)  The symbolism of women's hair is all over white folklore too.  If "Hair for [black women] is a physical indicator of the ways in which we are different," though, white women's fascination with black women's hair isn't at all inappropriate, rather it's a recognition of the audacity of black women and their hair.

Still, contrary to Andrew Ti, curiosity itself isn't racist.  It's another one of those human universals.  There are big differences, cultural and individual, in the ways people express their curiosity, and children are trained from an early age about what is okay and what isn't.  (Don't stare.  Don't point.  Don't ask rude questions.)  It follows from this that white women's frequent obnoxiousness about black women's hair is itself a cultural value, an expression of white privilege: they've absorbed the message that it's okay to treat black women as if they were critters in a petting zoo.  In this country, with its tradition of white racism, that can't be excused as simple curiosity, and black women's reluctance to be petted by white strangers shouldn't be reduced either to over-sensitivity or to mystical audacious power.

Ti overlooked a couple of things, though.  One is that, as far as I can tell from the question, this young woman hasn't yet touched her therapist's hair; her manners aren't that far gone, and to this point she's only guilty of curiosity, not racism.  And curiosity isn't wrong.  Another is that the woman whose hair she wants to touch is her therapist, who's being paid to deal with people's often inappropriate feelings and impulses.  I'd advise her to tell her therapist, and let her therapist explain to her why she won't let her do it.  If she can't do that, she really shouldn't be a therapist.  Strangers aren't obligated to educate me; therapists are.

This item bugged me especially because it reminded me of Ti's earlier outburst against a presumed white person asking about the propriety of using his scanty store of Chinese words in a Chinese restaurant.  Part of the trouble is the limitations of Ti's format, where hiphop slang and one-liners substitute for discussion.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and it seems that more often lately it doesn't.  It's noteworthy that it's Ti who evidently thinks that being different equals not being "normal," and that that's a bad thing.  (The black women writers I've quoted above would disagree: they see their difference as superiority.)  What are those of us who aren't normal supposed to do, then?