CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll talk to the CEO of a six-figure company who launched a hair business when she was nine. But first, can I touch your hair? It's a question many black women say they're often asked. And sometimes people don't ask, they just reach out and grab it. It's a familiar topic here on TELL ME MORE, but a recent project in New York has started the conversation again.
Antonia Opiah and her sister Abigail organized an event in Union Square in New York City. They asked three black models to stand side-by-side, holding signs that read, "You can touch my hair." They hoped people would take them up on the offer and then begin a conversation about the taboo of hair touching. The Opiah sisters join us now. Antonia is speaking to us from Paris. Welcome, Antonia.
ANTONIA OPIAH: Hello, there.
HEADLEE: And Abigail joins us from our New York City studios. Welcome to you, as well.
ABIGAIL OPIAH: Thank you very much.
HEADLEE: Antonia, this all began with an essay that you wrote for the Huffington Post called, "Can I Touch Your Hair?" And, you know, this is a long-standing debate. What made you weigh in at this point?
ANTONIA OPIAH: Well, I guess because this year in January, I launched a hair site, or a site dedicated to black hair, just because it is a topic that's rich with things to talk about. And I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about the whole hair touching phenomenon with a larger audience, because most of the time, or prior to January, or prior to me having this site, I was really just having conversations about my encounters with strangers with just my friends. And it's one thing to just have a conversation with your friends and another thing to have it with a bigger forum.
HEADLEE: Well, a bigger forum I would assume would include non-African-Americans, non-black people, who ask that question, can I touch your hair? And in many cases, they say, look, it's not, I'm not trying to be offensive, I'm just curious. My hair feels different and I want to see how yours feels. How do you explain to, say, a white person, a non-black person, why this is so emotional.
ANTONIA OPIAH: Well, it's a hard thing to explain, but I guess, when it comes to hair, black hair is not just hair in America. There's so much history that we carry on our heads, so to speak. For the longest time, we've been told that our hair isn't acceptable in its natural state, so we were always encouraged to straighten it or wear weaves.
And so now, especially, and there's been a few moments in time when we sort of, you know, put aside what everyone was telling us about our hair and did what we want, the black power movement, for example. And right now there's currently a natural hair, some call it a renaissance or a movement happening, and it's doing a lot to reacquaint us with our hair.
And so, I guess, to sum all of that history up in a nutshell, it's a difficult thing for any one person to explain, which is why I thought having a larger discussion about it could help sort of disseminate everything, the weight that our hair carries.
HEADLEE: Which seems to have been the purpose behind the, I guess you'd call it an art exhibit or art project in New York. But here's Maya Chung, one of the hair models that stood in New York with the sign saying, "You can touch my hair." And here she is describing her motivation, at least, behind participating in the event.
(SOUNDBITE OF EVENT, "YOU CAN TOUCH MY HAIR")
MAYA CHUNG: Yeah, I think there's a lot of misconceptions about black hair, a lot of questions that people have, curiosities. And I don't think there's anything wrong with addressing it. Just like, I mean, people have curiosities about everything, so we're just creating a forum for people to talk about it.
HEADLEE: So there she is saying that there's curiosity and we're trying to create a forum for people to talk about it. But Abigail, there were people, African-American women especially, really offended, who felt as though this art project trivialized their feelings of exploitation when people touch their hair or ask to touch their hair. What's your response to the people who're outraged over the project?
ABIGAIL OPIAH: Well, my response would be, you know, I think one of the main distinctions that we wanted to make with what we did versus what, you know, Sarah Baartman went through, for example, is the fact that...
HEADLEE: I should explain, Sarah Baartman was the South African woman in the 1800s who was exploited, displayed all over Europe.
ABIGAIL OPIAH: Right, exactly, and some of the people had signs that saying, I'm not your Sarah Baartman. So what made what we did a little bit different is the fact that, you know, we did this on our own volition. You know, Sarah Baartman was duped, so to speak, into being put on display by white people.
So I think, you know, they had seen images of the first event, they had seen the hashtag and they didn't really understand the larger frame of the story that we were trying to tell.
So I think they became very incensed about that and came out to really just add another layer to the dialogue, just to kind of let people know that this is not a free pass to let people, you know, just touch random women's hair. So that was their stance and we kind of welcomed them, because they were essentially saying the same things we were saying, just in a more direct form.
HEADLEE: Well, let me have one of those people say those things directly. This is playwright Radha Blank, who showed up to protest the event. Let's listen to her comment.
(SOUNDBITE OF EVENT, "YOU CAN TOUCH MY HAIR")
RADHA BLANK: You're not inviting me into your home to talk to me about your money and your finances. Why do I have to then talk to you about how I style my hair and let you know how it feels so you can feel better about it? Not only can't you touch my hair, but I don't care what you think about it and I don't care if you like it or not today.
HEADLEE: Antonia, how do you respond to that. I mean, first of all, I wonder if you were surprised by the strength of the protest.
ANTONIA OPIAH: I wasn't surprised by it. I mean, I understand where it comes from. We're a protective community and we have reason to be, or to protect ourselves. Racism isn't something that happened in the past, it's something that continues to happen today.
And the way it happens today is in a very, sort of, it's not as visible as the way it happened in the past, which makes it more dangerous. So we're always, as a community, protecting ourselves from that kind of danger. So I understand where the protests came from.
I think what - I took a couple things away from the protest. One, I welcomed it. I wanted their voices to be heard, because it's interesting, if you take a step back and look at what actually happened, you had women on one side saying, you can touch my hair, and women on the other side saying, you can't touch my hair, and not those exact words.
But I think that, if you look at that whole picture, it shows exactly where people stand. It shows that it's not, we all don't think, feel the same way about it. Radha has her opinion and her opinion is completely valid, but it can't be applied to everyone.
Not everyone sees it as someone stroking them like an animal. Some people actually welcome it, and that's one of the big takeaways that I got from the entire project, that the response to that question varies from woman to woman and even from moment to moment.
HEADLEE: So you wanted to start a conversation with people who are not African-American, perhaps, to help them understand the issue better. So let me allow you to do that. Let me play the role here of someone who says, look, I don't even know why you mentioned racism. It's not racism. I think your hair is beautiful. I've never felt anything like it and I want to see. I want to understand what it's like. When you say racist, that makes me feel hurt. How do you respond to that?
ANTONIA OPIAH: Well, gee, that's a hard one to respond to. But I guess the way I could respond to it is that when, if you're someone I don't know and you're putting me on the spot, it makes me feel self-aware, and it makes me feel self-conscious. It makes me aware of my difference from you, even though I'm American, too, in a time when I don't necessarily want to feel different.
So I think, so there's a two way sort of - oh, this is a hard one to respond to - I think the underlying issue here is that America, we all go around touting, you know, integration and we're all equal and we're all the same, but there are these small moments that are happening in everyday lives that do a lot to make people aware of their race and aware of their differences.
In some moments, I may be open to celebrating my differences and sharing that, those moments, or sharing my differences with you and also learning about how you're different. Other moments, I don't necessarily want that responsibility. I may just want to go about my day and just be a normal person, be an American, not a black American or a white American or someone that has hair that's different to you, because my hair isn't different to me, it's normal.
It's something that I don't have to explain to myself or anyone else like me. So the fact that I have to explain it to you is something that I shouldn't necessarily have to do, because you don't have to explain your hair to me. Because I know everything to know about your hair. The media tells me about your hair. The media doesn't necessarily expose my hair or my kind of hair to you.
HEADLEE: You certainly had plenty to say about it in the end, didn't you? That's Antonia Opiah and Abigail Opiah, two sisters who held a public event in New York City called "Touch My Hair," hoping to start a conversation. Antonia joined us from Paris. Abigail was in our New York City studios. Thank you so much.
ABIGAIL OPIAH: Thank you.
ANTONIA OPIAH: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.