DECEMBER 15, 2016
A FEW YEARS AGO, inspired by Alfonso Herrera’s store-bought blond locks in the short-lived telenovela Clase 406, I convinced myself that I needed to bleach my hair. Compared to his, my generic black hair was a thing to be tolerated, not admired. It was frizzy and bushy, resembling either a dust bunny or a tumbleweed depending on the humidity. Bleaching it wouldn’t solve that, but at least it would be a change. Later, when I unveiled my new look at a party, a friend joked that I had gone blond so that I could more easily pass for white. At the time, I scoffed his accusation off, saying something along the lines of my appearance existing independently of white people. Still, over the next few years, I turned the comment over in my head, asking myself why his words lingered in my mind so vividly. Another friend once told me, “You’re so lucky to be Nicaraguan and Puerto Rican. I’m just boring ol’ white.” I thought I would give anything to trade with her. People of color are often not allowed to just be people without the “of color” tag. However much I denied it, I tried to shed my color off by manipulating my hair and lathering my skin with sun block even on days when I remained indoors.
In college, I decided to go natural, maybe in part because I discovered Frida and her wild, boundless eyebrows, or maybe as a result of binge-reading inspirational quotes on Shea Moisture’s Instagram, but definitely because Corbin Bleu and Nick Jonas showed me that curly hair can be both prized and popular. I came to realize how my hair differed from my single mother’s, whose straight locks I grew up attempting to mimic, and instead surrendered to the reality that my curls have their roots in my father’s DNA, the mixed Amerindian, Spanish, and African American man I only saw sporadically throughout my childhood. I shunned razors, watering my head every night with coconut oil and shea butter. I ruined countless pillows sleeping with curl treatments on.
The longer it grew, the more my hair dominated all other aspects of my personality so that it became a focal point for every new interaction. Suddenly, strangers wanted to know what products I used, and, more than once, where I bought my wig. It was as if they understood my newfound self-love as an invitation to interrogate my body. “Can I touch your hair?” is only a question insofar as it demands people of color to ask themselves why their bodies are something to marvel, and, by extension, what their novelty is in direct opposition to. What is so different about curly hair to justify wanting to touch it? Curly hair is read as a reaction to straight European hair, and so is coded as a political statement. Yet, to millions of people, it is simply a natural fact of existence. As much as outsiders project meaning onto ethnic hair, when I bleached mine, all I really wanted was to look cool.
As someone who finds themselves perpetually on the receiving end of the pesky question the title alludes to, I was primed to appreciate You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain, Phoebe Robinson’s first essay collection. The book reads more like a conversation than a set of essays — one that she and many other people of color are sick of having. Halfway through the book, it hit me how serendipitous the timing of its arrival in my life was: I was reading You Can’t Touch My Hair, listening to Solange’s latest single “Don’t Touch My Hair,” and running my fingers through my newly grown curls. In the essay collection, Robinson wades through the fascination white people have with how people of color, and specifically black women, present their bodies. She confronts critical subjects like the historical representations of black hair in media, problematic casting calls for people of color, and which member of U2 she’d like to sleep with in descending order of hotness. In other words, this is not a definitive tome on race and hair politics, nor is it trying to be. It is clear that Robinson’s comedy background is at the forefront of the collection. If she is going to have to have this conversation, she is going to do it on her own terms.
Beginning with her work for MTV’s Girl Code and including Comedy Central’s Broad City, Robinson’s track record for weaving complex race and gender rhetoric with mainstream pop culture would give Usain Bolt a run for his money. Most recently, she has garnered attention for co-hosting the hit podcast 2 Dope Queens with Jessica Williams, as well as its solo spin-off, Sooo Many White Guys, devoted to highlighting the voices of women, people of color, and LGBTQ writers and performers in the entertainment industry. In You Can’t Touch My Hair, she turns the microphone on herself, exploring the ways she has navigated her self-image throughout her life. Readers of color may find their own stories echoed in Robinson’s essay about being forced into an educator role for white people.
Believe me, it’s not something I necessarily want to do. I don’t wake up every day going, “Aaah! Time to break down institutional racism to people before Kathie Lee and Hoda drink their body weight in Franzia and host the fourth hour of the TODAY show.” Honestly, I would be just fine spending my time finally perfecting the dance breakdown from Janet Jackson’s “If” music video or finally taking an art history course just for funsies or, you know, enjoying the luxury of being a multilayered person like white dudes are allowed to be, but that’s just not how things are.
Robinson’s urge to shift the focus away from a white-centric dialogue is central to the collection. While working retail a few years ago, a customer asked me if she could touch my hair, saying, “I know I’m not supposed to, but…” The woman expected me to be an exotic object, educate her on the history of hair politics, mark her as an exception, and break down my personal boundaries to succumb to her desire, all the while keeping a smile on my face at the risk of losing a commission. People of color are all too familiar with such interactions. Recently, an Iranian woman in one of my MFA classes lamented that Americans are constantly asking her what she thinks about burkas, viewing her as an educational opportunity instead of as a fully realized person.
Though the title of the book implies that Robinson is speaking to white people, the essays inside are comfort food for men and women of color. The conversation that takes place inside is twofold. On the surface, she tells white readers why they can’t touch her hair, explicitly detailing the practical and historical reasons a person of color might object to being fondled. Underneath these explanations, you can see her commiserating with black readers about how exasperating it is to still have to explain any of this at all. By using her accessible comic’s point of view, she challenges the ways we are conditioned to discuss race. Anyone looking for a nuanced definition of the prison industrial complex might look elsewhere. For the most part, Robinson assumes her readers of color, and many white readers, are already familiar with all of the critical race concepts discussed in more scholarly books — in all likelihood, they have lived them. Taking pride in black and biracial cultural touchstones, she instead uses her voice to spotlight the central figures that have subverted perceptions of how black people are allowed to look and behave. To that end, You Can’t Touch My Hair is less a response to an invasion of privacy than a demand that black complexity be celebrated. For every three people that ask to touch my hair, one person simply tells me that they like what I’m doing with it and leaves it at that. This book is for them.
Robinson is not alone in being vocal about being forced into an educator role. Black transgender social justice activist Kat Blaque recently posted a video on her YouTube channel that led to criticisms from her fans for moving her channel from an academic to a conversational tone. She had added unscripted videos that allowed for more flexibility in presenting her personality than her more formally structured work. Her new content showcases her sometimes unpopular outlook on questions — such as whether she feels personally insulted by men who don’t find transgender women attractive, which she does not. In the video, she argues that the role of educator that her fans project onto her leaves little room for her to share her authentic opinions:
While there are so many things that I care about … and am very much in support of and definitely believe in, I think people expect me to be far more sensitive than I actually am. And that bothers me because I’m constantly having to interact with people who think I’m just this really overly sensitive, easily triggered person.
Blaque, pigeonholed into the popular image of transgender women of color as being fragile and easily offended, bemoans the way this stereotype stifles her ability to be seen as a nuanced human being. “Even though social media is what I do,” she says, “even though I’m very happy about that and that’s something that I love, it’s a part of my life and I’m very proud of it, I also want to … be more true to myself.” The determination to be true to oneself is a lesson most white children learn from infancy. For many children of color, however, the idea of being “oneself” is often pit against the need to survive. They are taught to adjust their behavior around the police, what clothes to wear to avoid arousing suspicion, what music will not turn heads. In essence: The lesson children of color receive is that it is dangerous to be themselves. You Can’t Touch My Hair doesn’t philosophize about this dilemma. Instead, what Robinson does is perhaps more radical: she openly, unashamedly loves herself.
As a child, I fantasized switching bodies, inspired by the Disney movies playing on a constant loop in my bedroom, made-for-TV relics like Model Behavior or blockbusters like Freaky Friday. I pictured what my life would be like if I were only a few shades lighter and started telling people I was Italian. Friends laughed me off — after all, my last name is Gomez. I spent hours taking deep breaths in the mirror, hoping my nose would freeze pinched on an inhale, mimicking a narrow white boy nose. But most of all, I wanted the hair — straight and effortlessly disheveled, thick and wavy, the type of hair the guys in my skateboarding catalogs had. I packed away my basketball shorts and jerseys, trading them in for skinny Levi’s and band T-shirts, figuring the white kids would find me less threatening if I wore too-tight girl’s jeans. “I used to think you were in a gang,” one of my classmates told me later. “Now I just think you’re gay.”
I shaved my hair all off freshman year of high school when my criminal justice professor told me I didn’t look “professional.” Policemen cannot have hair below the ears, she told me, especially not curly hair. She was a former cop so she knew what kind of hair people took seriously. With no one quizzing me about my hair, I was free to pursue and perform aspects of my personality inaccessible to those who find themselves constantly cross-examined on the subject. Denying myself my hair, I was able to become a “serious” person.
Microaggressions, defined by Columbia professor Derald Wing Sue as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color,” can be as ostensibly innocuous as asking to touch someone’s hair, or as blatant as asking a black woman if she is going to celebrate Martin Luther King day by eating fried chicken and watermelon — a question a white comedy colleague asked Robinson in college. “In other words, if you allow black people to be as complicated as and multidimensional as white people,” Robinson writes, “then it’s hard to view them as the Other with all the messy pejorative, stereotypical, and shallow ideas that have been assigned to that otherness.”
Robinson hones in on the consequences that follow black men and women who revel in their complexities:
To be fair, these kinds of adjustments happen with every race, every sexual orientation, and for any group that does not fall under the category of “straight white dude.” However, because of centuries long of antiblack sentiment in America, it seems that some want to assign particular characteristics to blackness as a means of flattening or dehumanizing people. Blackness is not a monolith. There’s nerdy black, jock black, manic pixie dream black, sassy black, shy black, conscious black, hipster black … the list goes on and on. But some people don’t want to believe that, because if varying degrees of blackness become normalized, then that means society has to rethink how they treat black people.
Yet, if popular ideas of race relegate black people as reductive Others, it follows that there is a default to which they are “other” than. Like the hackneyed response to alternative music — “Alternative to what?”—the Othering of black people elicits the question: What are black people other than? Robinson deflects many-a-white-reader’s expectations that You Can’t Touch My Hair will answer all of their questions on race and black hair by emphasizing what makes black people beautiful rather than answering questions like what her own hair feels like or whether she is a “strong black woman,” another cliché that straitjackets black women. Stereotypes like this are particularly insidious because they restrict full freedom of expression. The alternatives are not good. Should something upset them, they become Angry Black Women. If they are too meek, they are Victims of their Environments.
Black hair is coded. Afros are militant and anti-white. Dreadlocks mean drugs. Last year, Giuliana Rancic made headlines by claiming that actress Zendaya’s dreadlocks looked like they “smelled like patchouli oil and weed.” Despite the backlash Rancic received, the vast majority of subtle jabs like these are overlooked, leaving people of color forced into positions as simultaneous receivers, deflectors, and educators of racism, as Robinson notes:
[W]hen you are a person of color in this country, you learn early on that you cannot fall apart every time something racially-charged happens to you. You just have to be resilient or you won’t survive.
Hair politics vary based on race, gender, and class. My curly hair, for instance, which often typecasts me as a slacker, can be perceived as combative on a black woman, or artsy and spunky on a white woman. Despite misconceptions of the implications that hair carries, Robinson remains hopeful that things are changing: “Now, thankfully, we’re in the middle of a moment where there’s less strict adherence to white Eurocentric beauty standards. As a result, black hair is less likely to be viewed, especially when in its natural state, as a political reaction to or rejection of white beauty.”
You Can’t Touch My Hair imagines a world where afros can just be afros, dreadlocks are not a sign of moral depravity, and maybe, one day, Phoebe Robinson can stop educating people about her hair and finally find the time to finish her erotic fan-fiction novel, The New Reparations, “which consists of detailed descriptions of Scandal’s President Fitz greasing Olivia Pope’s scalp.” CaShawn Thompson’s viral #blackgirlmagic movement created to celebrate the beauty and resilience of black women as well as the current spike in representation of people of color in popular media tease the possibility that this world will one day arrive. Until then, the answer is simple: No.