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Essay: Don’t Touch My Hair

Contributor Jared Cross reflects on identity, setting boundaries and celebrating Black hair
Illustration for Jared Cross' essay "Not Today" in San Diego Magazine's January 2024 feature
Painting by Noah Saterstrom

“Can I touch your hair?” is not an unfamiliar request. My hair has been summoned by hands long before it was long enough to reveal its coily 4A texture. Given the number of times I’ve accepted or denied, you’d think I’d have the lingo down, but one summer-like autumn day in Pacific Beach revealed cracks in this assumption.

I was returning with a frozen piña colada and a New Zealand sauvignon blanc to a table I was serving on the patio. The drinks were with their rightful owners, so I uncrunched my knees to return to my full stature, and that is when the request sounded. “Can I touch your hair?” one of the guests asked.

The public has asked for permission to interact with my hair north of 50 times. But this time was different. Not because I was privy to the coat of gochujang barbeque sauce lacquered across her fingers minutes before. It was different because I was at work. She was the patron, and I was the server. There was an expected and respected hierarchy at play.

Just say no, many might think. Surely consent applies to non-romantic physical touch. My past experiences cued me in, informing me that a standalone “No, thank you” can be abrupt, and some confuse boundary-setting for hostility.

As I processed my response and began sending the words to my tongue, I realized she had already sent her hand on the assignment. Her fingers were level with her forehead, making the two-foot ascent to my coils. I swiftly started rehearsing some lines.

I began with what I wanted her to know, like how in my community your hair is part of your crown, and I’ve fought since a young age to style mine less traditionally. That I divorced myself from my childhood ritual of keeping my hair no longer than a quarter-inch, later experimenting with color and accepting the misplaced labels of being unmasculine that came with it.

Courtesy of Jared Cross

I’d pivot to recounting the days school kids would recoil in disgust upon learning I don’t shampoo daily, or how letting people touch my hair was often followed by animated frowning as they attempted to discern the various unrefined oils that left a glistening cast on their palms. I’d explain my hair texture is soft and malleable like wool and that taking some extra moments in my car before my shift to shape it is why I clocked in two minutes late, an unsavory reminder to wear my silk bonnet to bed nightly to prevent drying.

Maybe I’d share how unpleasant it feels to feel like a commodity, or at the very least remind her of the food that was resting on the tabletop.

It was my moment, and I was not going to fold. The “No” was on my lips, backed by a succinct yet friendly explanation outlining why I was going to decline her request. But as my eyes locked in on her fingers that had nearly completed their journey, my feet remained cemented, and my torso and head subtly dove back.

“No, not today,” I said with a tone I was naive to call confident at the time. “My hair is full of products. It might leave your hands oily and slick.” Slicker than the gochujang waiting to be reintroduced to her fingers when she nabbed another rib.

By Jared Cross

Jared Cross is a writer who grew up near the US-Mexico border in San Diego. He credits this experience with refining his appetite for food and culture.

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