“Can I touch your hair?”
How did we get to this point? How did this stranger get the nerve to ask this personal question?
You see, I am at the park, with a book I will not read because watching people is so much better. Behind my sunglasses, I can stare for as long as I want. No one will know, so no one will care.
When she arrived with her multi-coloured handbag, wearing a blue dress with little white daisy patterns, underneath a light green sport coat, a bright pink scarf around her neck, and navy tights in brown leather ankle boots, I thought of church on Sundays in Nigeria, the profusion of colours but without the gaiety.
She began looking at me not long after she sat on the bench opposite me, occasional stares, polite stares, with a small smile, the kind that invites conversation. I should have said something; maybe something about the weather, about how annoying it was that the sun chose to play peek-a-boo. Instead, I averted my gaze. But I could not keep my eyes away because she has earrings all over her face—four earrings on her right ear, two on her left, two on her nose, and one on her lip.
If I did not look back perhaps, she might not have asked. I thought about one fallout of not being native Dutch as she kept staring, her curiosity shining through—being at the mercy of people’s assumptions about why you are here. I see it in their eyes, a self-indulgent kind look that presumes I know how lucky I am to be here, as if I had escaped starvation in Africa by the skin on my bones.
However, I could not dwell on the challenges of immigration. I could not analyse how racial prejudice swings back and forth from citizens to migrants like a bicycle that pedals forward and backward because that was when she walked towards me, looking at my cornrows in wonder as if they were listed in the Guinness Book of Records.
“Maak ik uw haar aanraken?”
“Ik spreek Engels.”
“Oh, is it your hair? Please can I touch it? How long…”
I should be used to it. I am. I am not. I am … tired.
She continues to look. Looking is free.
Why have I never asked to touch the hair of any Caucasian woman including those who are my friends? I have a theory. I had many Barbie dolls growing up. I brushed and brushed the rubbery silkiness of their blond hair; twisted it, plaited it, wrapped it, pony-tailed it, cut it, washed it, pulled it, until I was “un”fascinated by it.
“Hello, I’m Africa, and no you may not touch my hair! If you had played with African dolls when you were younger, you would not need to touch my hair.”
The words are at the tip of my tongue, but I do not vocalize them.
How can I? How dare I sound indignant when I remember that some people in Nigeria stare at foreigners as though they have never watched TV? Others ask to touch their skin and there are those who solicit funds with their sad, sad, stories, as if every oyinbo is World Bank, willing to give aid to Africa.
I exhale deeply. “Yes, you may.”
We can recoil from what we do not know, we can pretend we know, or we can seek to know. Maybe understanding will foster peace. Maybe understanding will dispel superstitions. Maybe understanding will reduce stereotypes. Maybe understanding will bring acceptance. What do I know? I close my eyes as she touches my cornrows, lightly, hesitantly, and then with firmer motions as her confidence grows.
© Timi Yeseibo 2013
Image credit: Woman holding Earth globe by Microsoft
Photo credit: my cornrows © Timi Yeseibo 2013
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