I definitely laughed out loud at Phoebe Robinson’s You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain. I also heaved some deep sighs and, at one point, I put the book down for two days in frustration. Still, despite its ups and downs, I definitely come out in favor of this book and happy to have spent the time reading it.
Robinson- a stand-up comedian, writer, co-host of the podcast Two Dope Queens, host of Sooo Many White Guys- has been a writer since she was small. That is evident in significant sections of the book, including “A Brief History of Black Hair…” This section roamed through haircuts, styles, and conditions from Lisa Bonet to Diana Ross to Little Richard to Michael Jordan. Robinson not only comments on the hair, but also on the impact of a particular style or hair circumstance on black audiences and, perhaps, on white audiences as well.
Since I am very white, I read the section “How to Avoid Being the Black Friend” as “How to Avoid Being That White Friend”. (Yes, apparently white people can make it all about them- or at least I did.) I read advice about avoiding white people who expect the nearest black person to be the automatic “arbiter of cool”, white people who immediately want to make skin comparisons to lighter skinner people of color (who does this? why?!), and how to call out racist behavior. I need to learn how to be a better friend to black people and continue to improve my overall ally game.
One important paragraph in this section noted that a good white friend will pay attention to how everyone looks in a group picture, even if it is just a quick selfie or brunch photo. Not all skin tones need the same light and a good friend will look take a perusal of the picture in question and request a retake if darker skinned people “look like the inverse of The Nightmare Before Christmas skeleton head.” While it does seem obvious to consider that everyone wants to look good in a picture, it is important to notice that the same lighting will not work for everyone. A few seconds of rearranging means a picture that more or most of the group are happy to see shared and recalled.
As well as her experiences in becoming a comedian, a blogger, and a general self-assured adult, Robinson writes two essays that are basically what make this book completely and totally worth reading: “Uppity” and “The Angry Black Woman Myth”. I read each of these twice because of the information and story that was in them. It wasn’t just about processing her experience, but about looking at the scenery of the world where these experiences did and do exist.
My one struggle with this book is the extremely contemporary language. The fairly frequent use of “AF” or “.com” as a sentence closer (not at the end of a website mention), puts the book in a very specific time profile. I worry that a phrase like “totes preesh” will keep the book from being appreciated as it should in even 2-3 years, much less 10-15. Robinson’s writing and observations are not really supported by those inclusions and I wonder why a copy editor allowed them to remain. Her voice and her clear direction to her audience (which may or may not be me) is obvious in the parts that do not have these affectations. I wish they had been edited out. My frustration with that caused me to set down a book that I would have otherwise completed in a matter of hours.
Nevertheless, I still really do like this book and when going back through my library copy for this review, I saw and remembered the snippets and passages that had hooked me and kept me turning page after page.