There’s something about difference – almost any kind of difference – that makes people in dominant cultures or identity categories feel like they can disregard and disrespect others’ boundaries by asking deeply personal questions or physically crossing the boundaries of people who embody that difference. And isn’t this the foundation for cultural appropriation?
White people, cis people, and so on feel they should have unfettered access to all that marginalized people wear, listen to, and create. When the privileged have this access, they feel as if it’s their right to either make the cultural production their own or otherwise reap the benefits of being in proximity to the cultural production. For example, it’s as if there’s some special equation granting white people the right to use AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) if they have more than three Black friends.
I regularly witness and experience so many variations of these invasive violations – the touching or the personal questions – that it’s hard to keep count.
Because I’m Black and wear hijab, people often assume I’ve recently arrived to the US from another country. And because immigrants, refugees, and asylees apparently have no right to privacy, I get asked all sorts of assumptive and prying questions about where I’m from, where my parents are from, and where I grew up. Those of us who wear culturally identifying clothing, have brown skin, or speak with non-US accents are all too familiar with these questions, and with the follow-up questions like, “No… where are you really from?”
To be clear, there is absolutely no problem with some degree of curiosity or asking questions of people. But it is more appropriate in some venues and contexts than others. If a person is speaking on a panel, and has shared pieces of their personal story, then sure – ask them about the story they shared. If you are meeting a person for the first time and you’re curious about anything they’re wearing that is a piece of clothing (and not an accessory like a pin or a shoe), then just hold onto your question. If you have a question about a piece of clothing or an accessory that has religious or cultural connections, it’s best to just stroll over to the internet and see what you can find. Taking this extremely easy step will save the subject of your curiosity from serious eyeroll-related injuries.
As a Brown person who has worn hijab most of my life, I customarily get asked questions that pry into my personal life and my personal clothing choices. I am always taken aback by the boldness of strangers who are white, cishet, and US-born. Here are some of the questions and actions that feel the most invasive to me.
1. “Why do you wear that [insert random name for headcovering]?”
Never ask this question if you don’t know the hijabi. This question isn’t necessarily problematic, but if it’s a real question, then it’s best only asked by someone who’s gotten to know the hijabi.
For some folks, wearing hijab is a deeply personal choice; for some it isn’t. But when a virtual stranger puts me in this position, I immediately become irritated, because I’m left with the sense that this person feels entitled to have access to my personal or internal life simply because I chose to wear hijab.
The only acceptable version of this question is when it comes out of the mouth of a young child and sounds something like, “Why do you wear that thing on your head?!” I mostly enjoy watching parents embarrassingly scramble when this happens.
2. “Are you hot in that?”
This question is particularly annoying for two reasons. The first reason is that it’s inevitably asked at the height of a heat wave, when everyone in the surrounding area is feeling overheated and uncomfortable. No one feels more comfortable, temperature-wise, with more clothing in the summer. To deny the obvious is preposterous, but to attempt to explain that it’s not just the piece of head fabric that makes a person hot is also preposterous.
This leads to the second reason why this question annoys me so much. This is a question about perceived oppression and not about body temperature.
When someone asks me if “I’m hot in that?”, what they’re really asking is, “Why are you allowing your husband/your father/your patriarchal religion to dictate your level of comfort?”, or, “Why don’t you just take that thing off?”
3. “Are you married?”
This one seems like it might not be that obvious, and this is the one question not about whiteness or difference. This is a question that often comes from other Muslims.
More Radical Reads: Why I Took Off My Hijab
I’m not sure where the hijab = married connection comes from, but, based on my experience, there is clearly some kind of link in people’s minds. I’ve always worn hijab, so I’m not sure if people who don’t wear hijab have a similar experience, but almost any time I meet a new Muslim person – particularly if they are older – I’m asked about my marital situation at some point in the conversation. This is one of the reasons I dread going into mainstream mosques.
4. “Do you wear that in the shower?”
I mean. I’m mostly including this one for giggles. But this was a for real-for real question I was asked ON MULTIPLE OCCASIONS when I was a young person. The people asking were also young, but still. Come on!
Don’t touch my/our hijabs!
At this day and age, I hope that all white people (looking at you, white women) understand what a violation it is to reach out and touch hair that is of a different texture than theirs. This kind of violation happens to Black women all the time. White women walk up to us and reach towards our hair without any acknowledgement that we may not want to have their fingers in it.
More Radical Reads: When Is It #TimesUp for White Women Who Don’t Recognize Black Women’s Boundaries?
Again, curiosity isn’t the problem. Humans are curious creatures. Understanding more about others helps broaden our worlds and helps create empathy. However, there is a line and a limit to this curiosity.
White people, cishet people, US-born people… please don’t cross this line.
[Featured Image: A photo of three people sitting outdoors, laughing. The person on the left is wearing a gray hijab and a purple dress. The person in the center is wearing a light brown hijab with flowers printed on the fabric and a blue shirt and blue striped pants. They are holding a smartphone. The person on the right is wearing a peach and brown hijab, a black shirt and striped pants. They are holding a white coffee cup. Source: pexels.com]