Black hair is beautiful—and everyone can’t help but want to touch it.
That includes Taylor Swift, who reportedly was so enamored when she first met The Weeknd that she just couldn’t keep her hands to herself. Recounting the moment from in an interview with Rolling Stone, The Weeknd, also known as Abel Tesfaye, says Swift gregariously praised his musical talent at Sam Smith’s Grammy’s after party earlier this year, all while stroking his hair like a fourth grader surrounded by goats at a petting zoo—for about 15 minutes.
“But the whole time she was talking,” he told Rolling Stone, “she was kind of, like, petting my hair? I think she was just drawn to it—she must have been a little gone off a few drinks. And of course I’m not going to be like, ‘Hey, can you stop?’ I mean, it felt good! But when she started petting my hair, that’s when I was like, ‘I definitely need a drink.’” The reaction on Twitter was less conciliatory—and outright furious.
"Someone should probably teach Swift about some boundaries and Tesfaye about when boundaries are being broken." https://t.co/KijijQtHpP
— Jaeah J. Lee (@jaeahjlee) October 23, 2015
me: [hears about taylor swift 'petting' the weeknd's hair] pic.twitter.com/PaDFAe40Zu
— retired (@motherjohnmisty) October 22, 2015
In any case, common sense should prevail: Just because you think someone’s hair looks cool, doesn’t give you the right to touch it. But for Black people, it’s not just a social faux pas: It often operates on a deeper level, because the intrusive, non-consensual touching of their hair betrays an ignorance about the political history of Black hair and Black people’s bodies.
Now just because Tesfaye says it “felt good” doesn’t mean he’s like, “Sure, people of America, feel free to touch my hair anytime you see me. It’s cool.” Rather, he’s describing a very human response: No one wants to kill the vibe or wants to be “that person” who started some drama, even if they were totally in the right.
It’s a racial cluelessness that’s not unique to Swift, but remains commonplace among many other white people like her.
But then there’s Swift, who stays mired in awkward moments involving Black people—the lack of Black people in her African-landscaped “Wildest Dreams” video, dissing Nicki Minaj for her critique of the VMAs, and using Black dancers as human props in the “Shake It Off” video, just to name a few. Each time, it seems, she just didn’t seem aware or able to foresee why her actions would give pause—a racial cluelessness that’s not unique to Swift, but remains commonplace among many other white people like her.
Most every Black person has been in the Weekend’s position—on the receiving end of white curiosity about Black hair. It happens in schools, workplaces, and nightclubs across America at any given moment. Throughout my life, my hair has been styled in a variety twists, curls, corn rows. I’ve donned an Afro and the crop-cut style I sport now, and no matter how I wear it, my hair gets unceremoniously inspected without my consent. It’s a phenomenon well-documented in YouTube explainers on the subject.
For example, at a previous job of mine, a white co-worker who only knew me for a matter of weeks got a little too familiar one afternoon, creeping up alongside me as I focused on my work. Just moments later, in that open-floor setting, my neighbors audibly gasped as I finally felt a hand gliding across my head as if I were some kind of crystal ball. With a slight turn of the head and a stern side-eye, my new friend doubled back. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry,” he replied. “I just noticed your fresh haircut and find the texture of your hair so fascinating.”
Touching Black hair without consent reflects an ages-old power imbalance, where white people maintain control over what Black people can do with their bodies.
In this case, I sensed a teachable moment—even as I had every impulse to sound off about why it wasn’t OK. “Hey, next time, you might want to ask permission first?” I said, adding: “Now, do you mind if I touch your hair, too?” Apologetic, he obliged and assured me he’d never make the same mistake again.
In this case, I knew the guy, he knew me, and I sensed that he meant no harm, even though he violated what’s historically been a tense boundary between Black people and white people. Most workplace dress codes outright discriminate against Black hairstyles, imploring women with natural Afros to wear straight hair and denying men the ability to wear locs, braids, or any other style that doesn’t resemble the hairstyles most white men maintain. It reflects an ages-old power imbalance where white people maintain control over what Black people can do with their bodies, dating back to slavery, and even to segregation—where public accommodations remained separate and unequal under the violent force of law.
Hairstyles, by comparison, might not seem like such a big deal within a more historical context. But they’re a direct byproduct of social settings and institutions that were designed with white people in mind.
My coworkers know not to touch my hair. And they walk on eggshells when asking questions about black hair.
— Politics over PUNANNY (@VitaVamp) October 23, 2015
— Working Out TheKinks (@WOKseries) October 9, 2015
Now, not every instance of unencumbered white curiosity has ended so pleasantly, as it did in my case and as it did with Tesfaye. I’ve seen fights nearly break out over this simple, yet distressing violation of Black people’s physical boundaries, and many a white man cursed out on street corners for laying their hands in the hair of Black women passersby.
That anger isn’t unwarranted. It’s merited and can serve as a tool for awakening the consciousness of white people who have been lulled to sleep by America’s propensity to wish away its racial demons rather than impart the importance of inclusion and cultural competence.
It’s a lesson Taylor Swift may, yet again, learn from a horde of trolls, critical fans, and Black people who she may have disappointed yet again. But maybe, just maybe, this will give many other unknowing people like her the wake-up call they’ve desperately needed.
Derrick Clifton is the deputy opinion editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture, and social justice.
Illustration by Tiffany Pai