'You Can Touch My Hair' Explores Fascination With Black Hair, Sparks Debate (VIDEO, PHOTOS)

06/07/2013 11:22 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2013

NEW YORK -- For most women of color, being asked "Can I touch your hair?" (or the sensation of an uninvited hand already in her tresses) is irritating and uncomfortable, to say the least.

However, on Thursday afternoon in New York City's Union Square, Antonia Opiah, founder of Un'ruly, extended an open invitation to all curious passers-by for an exhibition called "You Can Touch My Hair." Opiah was exploring the "tactile fascination" with black women's hair by gathering a trio of women with different hair textures and styles (locks, straight/weave and loose, natural hair) and allowing strangers the opportunity to fondle their follicles without the fear of being cussed out or slapped. Bedecked with signs reading "You can touch my hair," the ladies made their hair available for two hours to anyone with the courage to take them up on the offer.

"I applied to be apart of this event because I wanted my kind of black hair to be shown," Jade Garner told The Huffington Post. "I'm not offended when people ask to touch it. I think it's interesting." The 26-year-old Philadelphia native, who wears her hair in a long straight style with added pieces of weave, was excited about allowing perfect strangers pet her sleek 'do.

Jennifer Chiao, 15, said that the opportunity was one she'd been longing for. "The weave felt different," said Chiao, who stumbled on the event by chance. "I thought it would be greasy and oily, but it felt a little more natural than I thought." Out of fear of giving offense, the high school student said she has never approached the black girls at her school for a feel.

Joliana Hunter-Ellin, who has strawberry blond, shoulder-length locks, had a different reason for volunteering her mane to the masses. "I thought it would help me with my own problems with people touching my hair," Hunter-Ellin told The HuffPost. The 23-year-old, who works as a finance officer, says her biggest issue is being asked ignorant questions about her locks. Thankfully, her interactions during the exhibit have been positive. "Everyone has been really nice," Hunter-Ellin explained. "I know it's all just curiosity."

It was curiosity that drew Brooklynite Marilyn Geary, who read about the Un-Ruly.com event in the newspaper. The 60-year-old white woman, who writes a beauty education blog for Pivot Point International, figured the event would inspire a story or two. "Everyone has their own kind of perception of it. Is it really stiff? Is it going to be rough? It is going to be oily? It's great to be able to actually touch somebody's real hair and see what it actually feels like," Geary said. Having few black friends in her youth and being the "curly-haired girl who grew up in the era of super-straight hair," Geary said she could relate to the current natural hair movement happening within the black community.

Sporting a huge halo of voluminous natural curls, Malliha, a black Pakistani woman, completed the trio of "You Can Touch My Hair" volunteers. However, she said she's uncomfortable with the whole issue and finds other people's curiosity to be highly intrusive. So what would make the 27-year-old model and writer -- who said she owns a T-shirt that reads "I don't like when strangers touch my hair" -- let inquisitive fingers dive into her locks?

Malliha said the exhibition gives her an opportunity to learn what motivates certain individuals to attempt such an intimate act, and in return, she can provide a public etiquette lesson by explaining why it should never be done. "What is the underlying thing behind it? Is it because it's different? Is it because of the cultural aspect of it? What is it that compels people to do it, or to ask?" she said.

While she admits there may be no conclusive answer to her questions, Malliha said, "At the end of the day, it's just hair. We all have hair, and it's beautiful that we all have different textures and we're blessed with so many different styles of hair. For me, I could shave my hair off tomorrow and donate it, and I'd be fine with that because my hair doesn't define me. It's not me as a person."

Echoing that sentiment, Crystal Miller, 21, made a point to stop by the exhibit with a few friends in tow to witness the touching firsthand. "This is shocking! I was always taught never to let anyone touch your hair," said Miller, who is of West Indian descent. However, after watching others participate, Miller started to get the itch to reach out herself.

"I'm not going to lie, I was tempted to do it. I wanted to touch the one with the biggest hair, but once I walked over to her, I couldn't do it, because I know I don't like people doing that to mine."

Over the course of the two-hour social experiment, approximately 75 to 100 people stop by to touch, watch or engage in deep dialogue about black hair. One interesting observation: White people were not primarily the ones doing the touching. The overwhelming majority of "touchers" were women of color. In fact, most of the white passers-by seemed to walk past the opportunity without a second thought, perhaps out of a lack of curiosity, or a concern that showing that curiosity in public would appear racist, or maybe they were just uninterested in running their fingers through someone else's hair. (Or, then again, it might just have been Thursday in New York.)

However, Opiah said it's important to understand the exhibit simply as a social experiment, not a movement inviting the world to reach out and touch the head of the next black woman they see.

"I'm seeing a sense of discomfort and disapproval of the exhibit, which is exactly what I hoped would come to the surface," Opiah told HuffPost via email from Paris. "It's easy to disapprove of something so literal, but when you get the question 'Can I touch your hair?' in your everyday life, it goes unnoticed. I just wish more non-blacks would partake in the discussion. At the same time, I'm loving those people who are welcoming the discussion."

To Opiah's point, the event has elicited strong opinions on social media, with some likening the exercise to a slave auction block and others to a "petting zoo."

Opiah hopes that those arguments push the conversation forward. "It's an uncomfortable discussion for a lot of people, but sometimes we have to get comfortable in being uncomfortable to really break ground."

Those interested in experiencing “You Can Touch My Hair” can catch the exhibition during its final showing in Union Square on Saturday, June 8, from 2 to 4 p.m. Visit the Un'ruly website for more information.

Check out the video above for a glimpse of Thursday's exhibition and flip through the slideshow below for photos and Twitter reactions (warning: some of the tweets contain strong language!). What do you think about the event? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section.

Un-Ruly "You Can Touch My Hair" Exhibition

CONVERSATIONS