It’s been almost 2 months since my last blog post. Wow. Much has happened since then, and I guess I’ve just been too caught up in the happenings to take the time to sit down and write about them. However, I am back on the bandwagon now with much to discuss. I was in the States for almost 6 weeks until about a week ago, for work and play. For the former, I was chaperoning a group of high school students from Beijing on a tour through key cities in the South, New England and DC, focused on helping them understand race and diversity in American culture and society. I actually started a blog post about taking my first trip back to the US in 6 months (twas amazing!) and my experience with the students (let’s just say teenagers aren’t my anointing), but then I went out on Friday night and some incidents occurred that I feel compelled to write about, so here I am. I promise I will finish the other post, and it won’t even take another two months.
Last night I went to a very delicious, very boozy group dinner at one of my favorite restaurants. The food was phenomenal, the drinks were plentiful and the company was lovely. After dinner we ended up at one of my favorite clubs in Beijing. We got another round of drinks, chatted for a bit, and eventually made our way to the dance floor. If you know me, you know how much I love to dance, so I was really in my element. Killin’ it. Then at one point, I felt a hand touch my hair. [Eye roll, deep sigh, here we go again]. I turn around and see a young girl standing a foot away from me giggling to her friend, because nothing is funnier to drunk biddies than harassing strangers, amiright? I said, “don’t touch my hair,” made the slit throat hand motion I reserve for those who violate my personal space (see prior incident with that ridiculous table waitress in Bangkok) and turned back around and went about my business. Which at the moment consisted entirely of partying with my friends, obviously. Then later, someone else grabbed my hair. And at that point I was just SO very over it. So I turn around and ask the man standing behind me with a sheepish grin on his face, no less, why he touched my hair. Did you think I wouldn’t notice? Because I did. Did you think it would be ok? Because it’s not. He was clearly taken aback by my aggressive response and proceeded to stutter his way through a poor excuse for an apology about how he couldn’t resist and didn’t know I would be so upset.
Somehow his half-baked apology and particularly his failure to take responsibility for his actions pissed me off even more, and given that I was already fuming, I decided to take a seat to cool off for a minute. Somehow, getting into an argument with a visibly drunk guy about self-control and personal responsibility on the dancefloor at a club at 2am felt like a colossal waste of time. I’m rather proud of myself for just walking away, because there was definitely a time when I would’ve engaged in the aforementioned fruitless argument, or at least thrown my drink in his face. Lucky for him, my mother taught me better than to waste my liquor.
Anyways, his response reflected two fundamental issues that really pissed me off. The first was his suggestion that he simply couldn’t resist the temptation to touch me. It baffles me how male chauvinism includes this total abdication of control over male impulses, particularly sexual ones. In many cultures, men are, supposedly, the only gender fit to run the world or make critical decisions or even drive a car, but don’t have the discipline and self-restraint to keep their hands or peens to themselves when they see a girl’s elbow. Unfortunately, this mentality is as harmful as it is pervasive. It allows men to say with a straight face, it’s not my fault I raped her, she was out in public without a man; or, it’s not my fault I groped her, her skirt was too tight; or, in my case (which is admittedly less severe), it’s not my fault I grabbed a fistful of her curls, she had the audacity NOT to straighten her hair this morning.
The second issue was his claim that he didn’t know I would be so offended. The level of blind privilege it takes to feel entitled to put your hands on a complete stranger’s body without consequence is truly remarkable and profoundly repulsive. You didn’t really think I wouldn’t be upset. No, more than likely, you saw me, exoticized my hair, decided you wanted to touch it, and that your desire to touch it was more important than the overwhelming probability that I might not want to be touched by you (again, a complete stranger), so you rolled the dice and did it anyways. This guy was taken aback, not because I was upset, but because I had the nerve to respond and burst his bubble of privilege, if only momentarily.
After living in Beijing for 6 months, I’ve grown accustomed to being an oddity amongst the Chinese and am learning to cope with the annoyances that this entails. However, notably, both of the people who touched my hair last night were white. Judging by their accents, the girl was American and the guy with British. Frankly, this made the whole ordeal exponentially worse. Many, if not most, native Chinese people have only ever seen black women in movies, and probably never one with hair like mine, because Hollywood basically refuses to showcase the beauty of natural hair unless it is in a movie about slavery. So I can accept that I must be so strange and exotic to them that they just don’t know how to act right. But if you’re from the US or the UK, you have no excuse. There are enough people from different races and cultures in those countries, which boast some of the most international cities in the world, that you really should know how to act around a black woman by now. You knew better, and willfully refused to do better, which is that much more insufferable.
Aside from the moral offensiveness of these strangers’ behavior, I also have some practical concerns. Beijing is kind of a dirty city, and I am a stickler for personal hygiene. Having strange, uninvited, likely dirty hands in my hair makes me want to wash my hair immediately. Unfortunately, I can’t just wash my hair all willy nilly. If I shampooed my hair every time someone touched it, I would wash out all the healthy, natural oils with the dirty strange people germs, and my hair would probably fall out. God simply did not intend for me to be washing my hair everyday. I wish I could wake up carefree, throw on some water and generic CVS brand shampoo and conditioner and go about my day. Instead, I have to schedule my wash days – because yes, washing and conditioning my hair is a process that can take an entire day – and invest in costly products. I start with shampoo, then a protein treatment for strength, then a moisturizing treatment for hydration, then a wash out conditioner for softness, then add the leave-in conditioners (plural, because there are several) for moisture, bounce and curl definition plus gloss drops for sheen, after which I braid my hair into some Color Purple plaits, tie a silk scarf on it, and sit in my house for hours until my hair dries and the hundreds of dollars worth of product I’ve used have done their job. After my hair has dried, I separate the braids, run my fingers through and shake my head a few times then [Future voice] — voila, magic. The end result is a soft, moisturized, shiny, healthy curly fro that seems to have captured the attention of so many socially maladjusted people in this city. Now, Beyonce has a lot of y’all out here preaching, “I woke up like dis – flawless!” or my all time least favorite mantra, “curly hair, don’t care,” with the obligatory accompanying hair flip. [Insert side eye here]. The devil is a lie. Our hair is WORK, and anyone who tells you differently is probably going to end up a bald-head scallywag hiding under weaves and wigs. That stuff is for celebrities. I’ve read multiple reports that Bey’s real hair is in shambles. Naomi Campbell’s edges have been missing for ages, and Jesus will probably come back before they do. Now I personally don’t have the fame, fortune, bust size or waist:hip ratio that these women do, and thus need to keep my hair in tact, so I necessarily take my maintenance regimen seriously. Needless to say, I don’t appreciate having my time, energy, and quality hair products wasted by ignorant jerks with overcurious fingers who never learned to keep their hands to themselves in pre-school.
Lastly, and most importantly, I am maniacal about my personal space and ownership of my body. For centuries, black women’s bodies were considered public property in America. During slavery, white slaveholders and their male relatives had access to our bodies as oft as they desired. After slavery ended (nominally, anyway), rape, sexual assault and harassment remained a regular part of life for far too many black women. White men retained unlimited access to black female bodies with impunity, and black women suffered this violence without recourse; the laws of America, which first recognized black women as property, then as 3/5 of a person, simply were not written to protect our personhood. Fortunately, times have changed since then. When faced with assault, violence and harassment, there are at least legal mechanisms in place to protect victims and punish offenders. Notably, black women still face an undue amount of verbal harassment, and I personally have been subject to so many vulgar cat calls I’ve lost count. Walk through [the non-gentrified part of] Harlem on a summer day with a skirt above your ankles and see how many marriage proposals, requests for your number and/or “oh baby what’s your name?” calls you get. If you venture up to the Bronx or down to Brooklyn, it’s the same deal, except substitute “ay mami!” or “tek di buddy,” respectively.
I am a product of both this history and my lived experiences as a black woman with a round behind living in urban American neighborhoods. As a result, I fiercely maintain a personal bubble around my body, one that is not to be penetrated by uninvited strangers. Many a man has been heartily read from Genesis to Revelations after touching my hair, grabbing my wrist, physically blocking my way, or generally posing any type of threat to my personal space. In this context, being touched by strangers, in Beijing or elsewhere, is especially offensive to me. While I recognize my relative hypersensitivity, I very consciously refuse to apologize for or adjust it.
For those of you following this blog, you’re probably sick of reading about my hair woes. But it’s really not just about my hair. The crux of the issue is that I am not an animal at the petting zoo, or a spectacle at the circus. I am a grown woman; this is my body, and I demand the right to take it out in public when and how I please without being patted, grabbed, groped or otherwise involuntarily touched by a stranger. Period. Full stop. Granted, it seems as though I will have an uphill battle with this in Beijing, which is rather unfortunate. However, relative to where we came from, protecting my curls specifically, and insisting upon being treated as a human being always, and, whenever necessary, correcting those who fail to do so, is certainly a burden I can bear.
Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, on the second life of books, at home and abroad.
"There aren’t any figures on just how much recycled paper goes into the books that you buy, but there’s little question that it’s significant. In large part, that significance is due to China, the world largest paper manufacturer. Curiously, though, China lacks sufficient quantities of good quality wood pulp to make the giant volumes of high-quality paper demanded by its customers both at home (China is one of the world’s fastest growing book buyers and newspaper readers) and abroad. In place of wood pulp, China uses vast quantities of recycled paper, with the highest quality recycled paper imported from the United States. This is no small trade: China is the world’s largest paper maker, and in 2011 roughly 62% of the incredible 90.44 million metric tons of paper pulp it consumed came from recycled resources. That rate of recycled paper consumption is up an incredible 249% since 2002.