Mena Fombo: No. You cannot touch my hair!

Recorded atNovember 02, 2017
Duration (min:sec)15:16
Video TypeTEDx Talk
Words per minute222.93 very fast
Readability (FK)69.36 very easy
SpeakerMena Fombo

Official TED page for this talk


Uninvited hair touching, an issue that primarily affects Black women and girls, is an invasion of personal space. To raise awareness of "hair attacks," activist Mena Fombo started the "No, You Cannot Touch My Hair" campaign, showing how unwanted hair touching is an issue that has been and still is rooted in racism. She shares three steps to end this invasive behavior and move toward a world that respects everyone's bodily autonomy.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:00 Let's play a game.
200:01 Mena says, clap once.
300:03 (Audience claps)
400:04 Great, well done.
500:06 Mena says, high-five someone next to you.
600:10 Very good, OK.
700:12 Mena says, touch the hair of the person in front of you.
800:16 (Audience laughs and talks)
900:17 I'm serious.
1000:19 (Laughter)
1100:20 OK now, touch the hair of the person next to you.
1200:27 Guys, guys.
1300:29 Mena didn't say that time, come on, you know the rules.
1400:33 Thank you for playing.
1500:34 Just want to see by show of hands,
1600:35 how many of you just had your hair touched by someone you've never met before?
1700:41 Yeah, it's quite a lot of people.
1800:42 And just by show of hands, how many of you were like,
1900:45 "Nah, I'm not touching anybody's hair today."
2000:48 I'm with you guys.
2100:50 I launched the "No, You Cannot Touch My Hair" campaign survey
2200:53 in the summer of 2017.
2300:55 And just under half of the respondents
2400:57 said they had their hair touched on a monthly basis
2501:00 by people they've never met before.
2601:03 And within that, 18 percent said it happened once a week.
2701:07 So if you can imagine unwanted and uninvited hair touching
2801:11 by people you've never met before.
2901:12 That's my daily life.
3001:16 About a year ago,
3101:18 I got exhausted with constantly saying to people, "Don't touch."
3201:22 Like, "Thanks for the compliment, but keep your hands to yourself."
3301:25 And I kind of wanted a recorder to just press play,
3401:27 but I figured that prevention is much better than cure.
3501:30 So I printed these t-shirts, and I started to walk around wearing:
3601:33 "No, you cannot touch my hair."
3701:35 And I wore them to supermarkets,
3801:37 I wore them to work and to conferences, I wore them out socially.
3901:40 But what I found was that lots of people started asking me questions.
4001:43 So some people genuinely didn't know that this was a thing,
4101:46 even though it affects my life, I was like, yes, it's a thing.
4201:49 And some people were like, “Yeah, I want a t-shirt, that happens to me.”
4301:53 So I wanted to start collecting that data, and the survey was born.
4401:56 As part of the research for the survey, I made this bit of a social experiment.
4502:00 [Is touching a stranger's hair without invitation ever OK?]
4602:02 (Video) Wow, your hair is amazing.
4702:04 (Laughter)
4802:10 [How does it make you feel?]
4902:14 The hardest part of that was trying to chase people,
5002:17 lift up my shirt to show us wearing this
5102:19 "No, You Can't Touch My Hair" campaign shirt underneath,
5202:21 at which point they thought I was flashing them,
5302:24 and try and say, "No, it's a social experiment."
5402:26 But when I did catch up with people and asked them how it felt,
5502:29 most of the people in the video said it was weird and uncomfortable.
5602:32 The majority of our campaign survey respondents said
5702:35 that it felt intrusive, it felt invasive,
5802:37 and they were very angry and annoyed that this happened to them.
5902:41 One of the things that I find
6002:42 was that the majority of respondents were female,
6102:45 so 90 percent in fact, identified as female.
6202:48 And the majority of those were Black women and girls.
6302:51 So we know that this is an issue that affects Black women and girls
6402:55 more than any other race.
6502:56 A friend of a friend, this white guy was saying, "Yeah, but Mena, you know,
6602:59 I went on holiday to India for two weeks, and people were touching my hair.”
6703:03 And lots of other women were saying, "Oh, you know, when you're pregnant,
6803:07 people come up and touch your stomach, and it’s the same thing.”
6903:10 Now, I don't want to take that experience away from anybody.
7003:13 Any form of unwanted and uninvited touching is completely unacceptable.
7103:17 But most women on average are only pregnant for nine months.
7203:20 So that type of touching will come to an end.
7303:23 And I'm not on vacation or on holiday.
7403:25 And like many of the respondents,
7503:27 this is the country that I was born in, and it still happens.
7603:30 Some people, a very small minority, said they didn't mind the touching.
7703:33 And again, that's cool.
7803:34 But this campaign is really targeted
7903:36 at the overwhelming, disproportionate number
8003:38 of Black people, Black women, Black girls
8103:40 that experience this unwanted hair touching.
8203:44 When I was six years old, I was asked to be Mary in my school play.
8303:48 I was like, “Get in, lead part!”
8403:50 And the only other Black kid in the school was asked to be Joseph.
8503:54 And on the day, they gave us this white baby Jesus.
8603:58 (Laughter)
8704:01 Now, I accept that it is genetically possible
8804:04 for two people of African ethnicity to birth a white child.
8904:07 But this was the '80s England,
9004:09 so I don't think that that was the point my school was trying to make.
9104:12 So I asked for a Black baby, they said no.
9204:15 And in response, when all the parents came in, I just refused to smile.
9304:18 (Laughter)
9404:20 That was the day that my inner activist was born.
9504:24 When I got to seven,
9604:25 I started to notice that I was different to my peers.
9704:28 So I concluded that I was really, really, really intelligent.
9804:32 Hear me out.
9904:34 (Laughter)
10004:35 So basically, this is kind of the age
10104:37 when they started to notice that I was Black.
10204:40 And so they'd asked me really crazy questions like,
10304:42 "Why are you Black?"
10404:43 And because I was really intelligent,
10504:45 I'd give these overelaborate, detailed explanations.
10604:48 And I would say, "I was born Black."
10704:51 And this was mind-blowing to them because then they would keep asking,
10804:54 "But why were you born Black?"
10904:56 And I'd never considered why they were born white.
11004:58 But I would kind of say I just was, and we’d go back and forth.
11105:01 But it became very apparent that this wasn't the response they wanted.
11205:04 So not just being intelligent, I was very creative.
11305:07 So I made up stories and I would tell the other kids
11405:09 that I was walking to school one day in the pouring rain
11505:12 and a car drove past me, this massive puddle splashed me with mud.
11605:15 And by the time I got to school,
11705:17 the mud had dried so hard that I couldn't wash it off.
11805:20 Well, the kids actually believed the story.
11905:22 And they'd be like, "Is it true?" And I was like, "Yeah."
12005:25 And they would go and get their siblings
12105:27 and say, "Tell my sister why you're Black."
12205:29 And so this became my rhetoric that I would go around telling people.
12305:32 And the fact that they believed such a ridiculous story
12405:35 made me conclude that they were idiots and I was really intelligent.
12505:38 (Laughter)
12605:40 Many years later, my birth mother Ayiba would tell me stories
12705:43 about when she would go to work, and she would take her Nigerian lunches.
12805:46 So she would have egusi and okazi, garri, and her colleagues would say,
12905:50 "What's that smell?
13005:52 What are you eating? What is that?"
13105:54 And she would look at them and she would say,
13205:57 "I am eating worms."
13305:59 (Laughter)
13406:00 "I am eating snake."
13506:02 "I am eating insect."
13606:04 And she said, “Somina,
13706:05 sometimes you just have to tell these people what they want to hear.
13806:09 They think I am a savage, so I will act like one."
13906:12 My seven-year-old self learned to tell people
14006:14 what I thought they wanted to hear.
14106:17 By the age of eight,
14206:18 I had convinced other kids that my hair is made of sponge
14306:21 because, of course, being Black, it couldn't be made of hair.
14406:24 But by nine, my difference started to become more of an embarrassment.
14506:27 And I remember going on a residential
14606:29 and on the first night, all the girls had to shower.
14706:31 And I was more developed than my peers.
14806:33 So we get into the showers and my peers were fascinated by my body,
14906:37 so much so that they took it turns to run into my shower and to grab me here
15006:41 and to grab me here
15106:42 to see what it felt like.
15206:44 And at the time, I tried to laugh it off,
15306:46 but it was humiliating.
15406:49 And it was so humiliating
15506:50 that for the next three days, I didn't wash.
15606:53 And every day the girls would say, "Come shower,"
15706:55 And I was like, "No, I'm not going."
15806:57 And by the third day, I couldn't tell whether they wanted me to shower
15907:00 because they still wanted to grab my hair or to see me naked,
16007:03 or whether it's because I smelt so bad,
16107:05 because one of my guy friends turned to me and said, "Somina, you stink."
16207:09 I remember being mute the rest of that day.
16307:13 The rumor kind of spread through the school.
16407:15 And over the next couple of weeks,
16507:16 I remember being pulled out of my class and sent to the headmistress's office.
16607:20 And as I got there, there was a male doctor in the office
16707:23 and the head was there and another teacher.
16807:25 And they had concluded that it was unusual for someone my age to have developed.
16907:29 So they wanted to examine me.
17007:30 And they pulled open my skirt and my knickers
17107:32 and looked down to see that I had hair.
17207:36 And I returned to class.
17307:39 When I got home that evening, my foster mother, Jean,
17407:41 was absolutely furious when she found out.
17507:44 And she called the school,
17607:45 she said a few angry words and then she put the phone down
17707:48 and she turned to me and she said,
17807:49 "I did not give permission for that to happen to you."
17907:53 She said, "I'm really sorry."
18007:54 She said, "It takes all types of people to make a world
18107:57 and there's absolutely nothing wrong with you."
18208:00 And I was very grateful for my mother for saying that,
18308:02 because it does take all types to make a world.
18408:05 And if we appreciate difference
18508:06 and it's not such as this intrigue that we feel a right
18608:09 or an ownership to go and touch.
18708:10 And maybe if other mothers shared that story with their daughters,
18808:13 then perhaps we wouldn’t be seen as so much of an other.
18908:16 My childhood may not have been so humiliating.
19008:21 In 1810, a woman named Saartjie Baartman was taken from South Africa
19108:25 and brought to the UK.
19208:26 She had distinct features, she was a Black woman,
19308:29 she had a large behind,
19408:30 and they put her on display in Piccadilly Circus.
19508:32 And thousands of thousands of people would come year on year
19608:35 to stare and to point and to touch.
19708:37 Fascinated, intrigued, curious.
19808:39 She survived for five years in the UK and when she died,
19908:42 doctors and scientists were so fascinated by her body,
20008:45 they made a plaster cast
20108:46 and they preserved her organs in museums until the 1970s.
20208:51 And in 2002, Nelson Mandela sent for her to come home
20308:54 where she received a burial.
20408:57 When I think about the experience I had at school with my peers
20509:00 and I think about the women who answered
20609:01 the "No, You Cannot Touch My Hair" campaign survey,
20709:04 and I compare that to the experience of Sarah Baartman,
20809:07 I have to say that the actions keep repeating themselves.
20909:10 This fascination with Black bodies,
21009:12 when I say Black bodies, I include Black hair,
21109:14 has been around for centuries.
21209:17 So is the motivation for touching hair
21309:21 different to the motivation for those that went to see Sarah Baartman?
21409:25 I'll say that again.
21509:27 Is the motivation the same for touching hair
21609:29 as it is as the actions that happened to Sarah Baartman?
21709:33 Human zoos were first founded by a guy named Carl Hagenbur,
21809:37 and he traveled the world and he took tribes,
21909:40 predominantly African tribes,
22009:41 and he presented them in Europe and in the Americas.
22109:44 And people would come to stare and to see.
22209:47 And those zoos existed until the 1960s.
22309:49 And I think to myself, had I been born a few decades earlier,
22409:52 could this girl have been me?
22509:55 Hundreds of thousands of people came to point and to stare and to view.
22609:59 Many women who responded to the survey
22710:01 said that people touching their hair,
22810:03 it felt like being petted in a zoo.
22910:09 "Your hair looks like my pubes" is what a group of lads chanted at me
23010:13 as I walked down Bristol Harbourside.
23110:15 "I've never touched an Afro before"
23210:17 are the kind of comments that people respond
23310:19 when I challenge them after they've just grabbed my hair.
23410:23 "You can touch mine" is a common response I get in meetings or at conferences
23510:27 as a trade off for exchanging hair touching.
23610:30 One woman said to me,
23710:31 "Well, if your hair wasn't so beautiful, people wouldn't touch it."
23810:34 After I went up to her and said, "Don't touch my hair again."
23910:38 Is the motivation different?
24010:40 Because the actions are still the same.
24110:43 A 14-year-old girl from Bristol
24210:45 wrote in and said that she was in the shopping mall
24310:48 and a group of girls
24410:49 came and started playing with her hair from behind.
24510:52 And when she turned and asked them to stop,
24610:54 they laughed and walked away.
24710:56 Is the motivation different?
24810:59 Because the actions are still the same.
24911:02 Another woman talked about her boss's boss walking past her desk every day,
25011:06 playing with her hair.
25111:07 She said it happens not just to her, but to other women, always of color.
25211:13 Is the motivation different?
25311:15 Because the actions are still the same.
25411:17 A father talked about his daughter begging to have her hair straightened
25511:21 because the touching had become relentless.
25611:23 A mother talked about having to braid her child's hair every day
25711:26 because the touching had come too much.
25811:29 Is the motivation different?
25911:31 Because the actions are still the same.
26011:36 We live in this world that is systematically unequal.
26111:39 So we have designed it to favor one group over another and over another.
26211:44 And we start to say terms like “unconscious bias” and “microaggression
26311:49 and “macroaggression.”
26411:50 But I would argue that we should really be saying “racism.”
26511:54 The motivation hasn't changed, the actions are still the same.
26611:58 If you imagine that we were to describe words as people,
26712:00 then I would argue that power would be the grandfather,
26812:04 prejudice would be the grandmother,
26912:06 and together, they have given birth to racism.
27012:09 Now, racism hooks up with ignorance and they create microaggression.
27112:15 If you imagine that microaggression is raised by ignorance and racism,
27212:21 what do you think she's going to become?
27312:25 Every time you put your hands in my hair without my permission,
27412:29 you are her.
27512:32 And every time you ask my permission and I say no,
27612:36 you are also her.
27712:40 And every time you see it happen and you don't call it out
27812:43 and we don't have systems in place to stop it from happening,
27912:46 you are her.
28012:50 I call hair touching "hair attacks."
28112:53 Every Black person, Black woman, Black girl
28212:56 deserves the same privileges as our peers.
28312:58 So we deserve the right to go to work and to not be attacked.
28413:03 We deserve the right to have an education and to not be attacked.
28513:07 And we deserve the right to go for dinner with friends
28613:09 and not be expected to be the educator of all things, Black hair, Black history,
28713:13 Black hair care.
28813:18 Many of the respondents were angry at the responses
28913:21 that come when you challenge things.
29013:23 So I asked them, what can we do?
29113:25 What can be done?
29213:26 And they came up with three things.
29313:28 One, they said that the touchers just need to stop touching.
29413:32 So if you're someone who touches,
29513:34 whatever you need to do, put a memo,
29613:35 a Post-it note on your computer, educate yourself, but stop touching.
29713:40 Two,
29813:41 they said that more education and awareness was needed
29913:44 and that looked like more representation in mainstream media,
30013:48 more history in schools, and not just one month.
30113:52 I hope that this talk today has helped to raise some awareness in education.
30213:56 But don't be complacent.
30313:58 Google, YouTube exist.
30414:00 So if this reaffirms your position or if this is new to you,
30514:03 then learn, share.
30614:04 And three, last but not least,
30714:08 they said that we need to call it out more.
30814:11 We all need to call it out more.
30914:14 What does that look like?
31014:16 I'm going to tell you.
31114:17 I'm going to split us through the middle.
31214:20 You guys over here are "don't."
31314:21 When I point, you're going to say your word
31414:23 and you guys over here are "touch."
31514:25 It's two simple words.
31614:26 And this is how we call it out.
31714:28 Audience: Don't.
31814:29 MF: Guys, that was weak.
31914:30 (Laughter)
32014:31 It's two simple words.
32114:33 So if anybody doesn't understand
32214:34 or doesn't know or hasn't experienced this yet,
32314:37 this is how you call it out.
32414:38 Audience: Don't touch!
32514:40 MF: I want to hear it loud,
32614:42 like these guys at the front.
32714:43 Audience: Don't touch!
32814:45 MF: I want to hear it one more time.
32914:47 How do we call it out?
33014:48 Audience: Don't touch!
33114:51 MF: Angela Davis said,
33214:52 "I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change,
33314:56 but I am changing the things I cannot accept."
33414:59 I extend that to you and I say, if the motivation is truly different,
33515:05 then we need to let our actions be that change.
33615:08 Thank you.
33715:09 (Cheers and applause)