Please Don’t Pet the Other

In a recent LJ post author Chesya Burke talks about how much she hates having strangers touch, or even ask to touch her hair. Go read it. I’ll wait.

I may not be black, but I can’t tell you how strongly I identified with this post. When I was in my early 20s,  I used to shave my head and everywhere I went, random strangers would try to touch it. Usually accompanied by some comment about how “cute” I was. It’s hard to explain to someone who has never experienced this, but there’s something profoundly degrading and even dehumanizing about being patted like a dog by a total stranger. It made me so furious that it often came to blows.

Chesya suggested that people felt entitled to pet her this way because she is black. Then I wondered in the comment section if it had happened to both Chesya and I (and the other women who responded) because we’re female. She responded by linking to this article penned by a man with dreadlocks, who has also experienced this dehumanizing kind of “petting.”

The women who touched, pulled or played with the male author’s dreadlocks obviously did not view him as an equal, or even as a potential mate, but simply a curiosity, like an exotic animal or a strange but intriguing or even amusing object. Which is exactly how all those head-petters made me feel. And that, ladies and germs, is what makes this behavior so offensive.

So what’s really going on here? Why are these very different people having what amounts to the same infuriating experience? There is no doubt that this is both a race issue and a gender issue but it also crosses boundaries and manifests itself in strange and unexpected ways. Like the black woman who posted about the way other black women tried to touch her hair when she dyed it blond, as if they’d suddenly forgotten how much they hated it when someone did it to them. Or the white (?) man who experienced hair touching while visiting Japan.

Having mulled it over, what I suspect might really going on here is a subconscious objectification of the Other, whoever that person may be. A kind of freak show mentality in which anyone who is even a little bit different is considered fair game, unworthy of the most basic human respect. Because I never had another woman with a shaved head try to touch my head.  I’ll bet Chesya and the man with the dreadlocks never had someone with an identical hairstyle try to touch their hair.

So, my dearest freaks of all races and genders, what do you think about this? Ever had this kind of thing happen to you?

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