Do you know what it feels like to have someone, be it a friend or a complete stranger, look at your hair with a mix between shock and wonder — and then ask if they can touch it? To be fetishized and treated like an exotic creature is an uncomfortable and often demeaning situation, one that I've experienced many times throughout my life. As has comedian and writer Phoebe Robinson: The title of her new book, You Can't Touch My Hair, is inspired by the book's first essay about the perception of Black women as it relates to their hair.
"With Black hair, there's a whole community of shared experience that many outside of the Black community do not understand," she writes in the book. "It's because black women know that the quality of their life and how others will treat them is riding on the presentation of their hair."
In addition to her reflections on Black hair and beauty, Robinson's debut collection covers everything from the time she was ignored by a cashier at a Michael's craft store (because of her race) to a poignant letter to her two-year-old biracial niece Olivia, all with a touch of wit and levity. I also particularly enjoyed the plethora of references to '90s pop-culture from a fellow '80s baby.
I chatted with the comedian — who, on top of myriad other gigs, hosts Refinery29's Riot Woke Bae series and co-hosts the podcast 2 Dope Queens with her work-wife Jessica Williams — about her creative process, her status as a Solange stan, and the real reason it's problematic to ask someone to touch their hair.
So let’s start from the beginning. You're primarily a stand-up comedian: What was the creative process like to writing a book of essays?
“It was a little hectic because I was doing 2 Dope Queens, working on stand-up stuff, and traveling. So literally some days I only had a few hours blocked off to write, and then there were a lot of days where I was just lying around and spending a couple of hours writing. It’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done creatively... I wanted the overall tone to be similar to my blog, [Blaria, aka Black Daria], but also elevated. I didn’t want it to feel like, Oh I could have just written this on the internet. I definitely wanted it to feel like it had more weight to it. Race, identity, and pop culture are the three things I talk about the most, so for me it felt like just putting that into a book form.”
Coincidentally, considering your book's title, Solange just released her new album A Seat At The Table, an ode to Black people featuring an amazing song called "Don't Touch My Hair." How did you feel when you learned that, and how does the song relate to your book?
"I mean, if Solange releasing this song a few days before my book You Can't Touch My Hair comes out isn't a sign from the universe that her and I should be besties, then I don't know what is. In all seriousness, though, I love this song. The lyrics are so spot on: 'They don't understand / What it means to me / Where we choose to go / Where we've been.'
"That literally sums up every Black woman's experience! And the fact that a complete stranger — [including] a white woman in the hotel I was staying at last night — walked up to me and petted my hair, without asking, of course, and when I asked her if I knew her, she said she did it because she thinks I'm pretty...shows that this song is as timely as ever. There is a total disregard for Black women's agency and our ownership over our own bodies. Hopefully, together, Solange and I can educate the world."
Who was your intended audience with this book? As a brown woman, I often felt like you were talking to me. But there were also times where I felt like you were helping non-people of color to understand our experiences.
“I really wanted it be for everyone. I know that sounds a little cliché, but I feel like even though there are things that I talk about that are specifically related to the Black experience, or specifically the female experience, I wanted it to be a book that anyone could come into and go on a fun ride and feel like maybe they learned something — or maybe they'll identify with something that they hadn’t thought they identified with before."
Not touching a Black woman's hair might seem like common sense to Black folks. But a non-person of color really just might not know any better. When it comes to dialogues about race, what's your advice on how people can educate themselves?
“I think its fine to be curious — just make sure you’re not fetishizing someone. And if someone is telling you about an experience that is different than anything you have experienced, just believe them. Don’t say ‘Well I don’t think that’s true,’ or ‘I don’t know about that.’ Sometimes I feel like people just need to educate themselves: You can read, there's the internet, and so many other resources that are not, like, ‘Ok, I’m gonna have my one gay friend, he’s going to teach me things, I have my one female friend who’s going to teach me everything.’ Don’t be lazy. Do your own research. As a Black person, I’m not here to be an encyclopedia for you. But I think there is a way to have a conversation between two people where they are are just sharing information."
There's one hilarious essay in particular where you talk about the ways you've been treated as a Black person in the world of comedy. You list examples of casting calls for people of color that were clearly not written by minorities. Do you think the entertainment industry has gotten better or worse since you first started?
“Change is glacial. I think things are definitely getting better. There are shows like Transparent and Atlanta and Insecure, and those are shows that might not have existed on TV 20 years ago. But I think things will change even more once there are people of color and women and gay executives calling the shots. Once one person is in charge, then they can bring along their friend, and that friend brings along another person, and that’s how we’ll see change that will stay long-term.”
You Can't Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson was released on October 4 by Plume.