"Can She Touch Your Hair?"

I arrived here at Tsuda College in Kodaira, a small suburb outside of Tokyo, just in time for the sakura to bloom. The view is beautiful. It is almost as if the trees, streets, and fields are sprinkled with pale pink snow. Surprisingly, however, in spite of the extremely captivating sakura, I have noticed more than a few stray glances and even some outright staring at me.

Of course, as a tall Black woman travelling to a racially and culturally homogenous country, such as Japan, I expected to receive some unsolicited attention. However, what I did not expect was so much attention directed specifically at my hair, which I wear in long Senegalese twists most of the time in a top bun. To give you some context, the Japanese are very conscientious of rude gestures, such as staring or pointing. The last time I visited Japan, although there was a minimal presence of Black people and foreigners in the rural area where I lived, I seldom received stares. Even when I did, they were primarily from small children who didn’t yet know about the implications of their behavior.

Because of my past experience, it took me by surprise when the notoriously reserved Japanese became so vocal about their interest in my hair. I have received numerous compliments, comments, and questions about my hair from people before even being asked my name. My emotions resulting from these encounters have been mixed. Initially, I was flattered by the appreciation of my hairstyle, and I deeply enjoyed giving people a crash course in Black hair care. I explained in my broken Japanese the concept of a protective style and presented some “How to Senegalese Twist” videos from YouTube. I was elated at the opportunity to share such an integral part of my culture with people who were genuinely interested. I felt like the unofficial ambassador of Black hair in Japan. However, a particularly uncomfortable incident at my homestay mother’s office party made me reconsider whether all of this interest was truly positive, and whether my reactions had been appropriate.

Let me set the stage for this party. I was nervous beforehand about how I would be received at the party because of the age gap between my host mother’s 40+ colleagues and I. There was also the issue of my limited Japanese and the fact that I would be the only non-Japanese in attendance. Nevertheless, I was eager to attend and see what a Japanese office party was like. We arrived at the restaurant just after sunset. After taking off my shoes and making my way to an unoccupied floor cushion at the table where my host mother’s colleagues were seated, I sat with my legs folded under me towering above everyone in the noisy, compact room. Before I had a chance to feel even slightly awkward in this overwhelming environment, I was bombarded with welcoming words in all of the English that my mother’s colleagues knew and a wide spectrum of questions about my life in America, my experience in Japan, and my reasons for studying abroad. Everyone was so kind and inviting that I almost forgot my “foreignness” in the situation. It just felt like a normal situation where a group of adults asks me about college life.

I had become so comfortable that I was taken aback by a question I hadn’t heard single elementary school: "Can she touch your hair? My homestay mother had translated the question for one of her more inebriated co-workers whom I had just spoken with. My heart sank. I went completely silent. In that moment, for the first time, I felt completely alien in this country. I looked at my host mother and her colleagues in disbelief. However, both my hesitation and expression were misunderstood. Rather than recanting the inappropriate question, the three women simply continued to look up at me questioningly. I sat looking down at the table for what felt like an eternity. Finally, in order to preserve the festive atmosphere of the party, I conceded. I leaned in closer so that the woman could grope my twists inquisitively. As her fingers made contact and the two other women seated by her ooo-ed and ‘ahh-ed, I deeply regretted my “diplomatic” decision. In that moment, I no longer felt like a guest at the party. Rather than a living being, I felt like a page in a Touch & Feel children’s book. All of this in attempt not to embarrass anyone else or ruin the atmosphere. I realized only a few days later that this decision was actually a selfish one. Allowing this woman to violate my personal boundaries was not in my interest, nor was it in her interest or that of any onlookers. My actions that day only served to shelter them and quite possibly perpetuate their ignorance.

This episode vastly deepened my understanding of what it means to be a Black woman abroad. If, as a person of African descent, you are blessed with the opportunity to venture outside of your nation’s borders to a country with a small Black presence, you become a de facto ambassador for you race. Although sharing your rich heritage and pleasant intercultural dialogue is a large part of this experience, it is far from all it entails. Being a representative for Black people also means socially educating others—sometimes full grown adults—on how to behave when encountering someone who is, for them, outside of the norm. It is about representing your people in a way that is positive and worthy of their esteem. I had forgotten all of this in that moment at the party. Had I unflinchingly denied that woman’s request, the brief moment of discomfort that would have ensued would have taught her and all who witnessed the interaction a lifelong lesson about human dignity in general, and specifically the dignity of Black people. I may have even saved another Black woman in the future from experiencing the same embarrassment as me.

Regardless, what is done is done. I refuse to focus on past mistakes. Instead I chose to grow from the knowledge that I have gained. I am sharing this in hopes that anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation can learn from my experience and know to assert themselves. If not for themselves alone, then for their brothers and sisters who will come after them.