You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson

At first this book falls in easily beside other comedic memoirs by Amy Poehler, Mindy Khaling, and Tina Fey. At first it reads like stream-of-consciousness, or really, like a stand-up routine, and I yearn for a hard edit and a more literary writer. But that’s only at first. You Can’t Touch My Hair (And Other Things I Still Have To Explain) dives more seriously into questions of race and gender, and, even when the author discusses childhood or show business stories (traditional fodder for the celebrity memoir), she does it with the goal of illustrating race and gender injustices. Plus her celebrity is far smaller than Poehler (for now), and her education and experience in writing much greater, making this an easy-read on a serious topic, a comedic look at one of the most important issues in American life.

(Photo L-R: Mindy Tucker, Gretchen Robinette, Jonathan Mayer)

The opening chapters on hair felt like filler to me, especially when Robinson listed the great moments in black hair history, with commentary. But this is also one of the best ways to introduce a white person to their privilege. The hair that grows naturally out of a white person’s head is considered “professional”; the hair that grows naturally out of a black person’s head is considered rebellious and dishevelled. The money and time black women in particular must spend in order to maintain socially-acceptable hair is exorbitant, and an example of white privilege. This I knew, but I suppose it’s still a good place to start. And I suppose it’s acceptable to use the same examples Robinson uses in her stand-up routine or on her podcast, if those are indeed the best examples. Still, for me the book really took off in later chapters.

Robinson’s storytelling style is as important as her subject matter. She plays with language in the way that makes every older generation lament the “kids these days”, but she does it with skill and comedic flair. Song titles become adjectives, abbreviations are abbreviated, and really important words are turned into website urls, because we all know that adding .com to something makes people take notice. These literary acrobatics are playful and smart – it feels like Robinson has danced ahead, turned around and yelled to the reader, keep up! This style, coupled with Robinson’s serious cred as a black person who knows black history, sets up a non-threatening space to consider complex and uncomfortable issues of race. Sometimes Robinson even suggests possible answers before negating them and suggesting something else. There are no universal answers, but there’s nothing to gain from avoiding discussion because the questions are too hard.

Robinson’s discussions of “uppity” and “angry black women” were my favorite, because I identified with both the oppressed (as a woman) and the oppressor (as a white person). Since I started reading feminist voices, I’ve learned to recognize when I’m accused of being emotional, simply for speaking up. I’ve also felt embarrassment and shame for racist statements made in ignorance, and through that shame have made situations worse. Robinson discusses both, and helps readers see these issues, if not objectively, at least with less hot-headed emotion.

And she’s funny! Don’t forget that it’s funny!

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