When I lived in Spain many years ago, I was considered exotic by many Spaniards and Europeans in general. I was different looking as I am brown and curly-haired. The fact that I was American bewildered many as I did not fit the images that are often exported by American television shows. I vividly recall going to an interview to be an English tutor to a pair of holly terror twins and the mother just staring at my face. At some point she told me in Spanish “wow, you are so lucky that you have a natural tan and natural curls. I have to pay so much to get that coloring.” I kid you not. Back then ,I was young, not fully empowered and really needed the $10 an hour paying job. Nowadays, I would have a completely different response. Although, perhaps not what you would expect.
Just a few years back, I would get wildly annoyed if people noted my curls and wanted to actually touch my hair. I was offended and felt that their desire to touch my hair was a micro-aggression, of sorts. By wanting to touch my hair, the person was making it a point that I was different. Perhaps I was so different to them, that I seemed like an outer space alien. I kept thinking haven’t you seen Jennifer Lopez, America Ferrera, Eva Longoria, Salma Hayek, or Penelope Cruz? Then I checked myself. Yes, those are all Latinas in the public eye, but guess what? None of them look like me. Some of them could even “pass” for non-Latina (if it weren’t for some of their accents). Where are all the Latinas with curly-hair that are cinnamon-colored (as one might be able to check off in the Brazilian census)? Often they are the maids or the drug-addicts on television.
If people are not readily exposed, then can I blame them for being curious. Of course, they can try to use better language, be more tactful and sensitive when questioning or commenting on my hair and skin-tone. Thus, when a few months back a well-meaning nice person asked if they could touch my hair because they had never felt hair like mine before I gave them permission to do so. I was slightly taken back, at first. Then I realized this person was genuinely curious and had never been exposed to someone like me. There was no malicious intent. As a matter of fact they just wanted to be better informed. I got to this state of being because I myself am now in a work environment where I am working with individuals of a certain background I had not much exposure to in the past. I am constantly asking questions. I even have, jokingly, a “protocols” officer who helps me understand the cultural nuances of events I am attending. Perhaps I seem like a politician in training. But wouldn’t it be nice if politicians actually bothered to learn about cultural norms and be culturally sensitive?
So, if it helps with understanding, I say go ahead and touch my hair. I am now ok with it.But please ask first.