“In fact, throughout the Obama years, there has been, at the very best, resistance to change, and at the very worst, a palpable regression in the way the country views and handles—or more accurately refuses to handle—race.”
Phoebe Robinson is a writer and stand-up comedian, as well as the co-host of the comedy podcast 2 Dope Queens with Jessica Williams. You Can’t Touch My Hair is a collection of humourous essays that draw on Robinson’s experiences as a black woman, including “How to Avoid Being the Black Friend,” and “Uppity,” an essay that explores coded language and white guilt. In a style replete with pop-culture references and internet slang, Robinson recounts her relationship with her hair, highlights black hair in the media over the past thirty years, and addresses some of the racism she experiences on a day-to-day basis.
Robinson’s essays hit a range of tones, from mostly humourous to mostly serious. I read the book in print form, but I often found myself wondering if some parts of the book would have been better on the audio version, which Robinson performs. Her more serious essays hit home hard in print form, but delivery is a huge part of comedy. I listened to a couple episodes of 2 Dope Queens after I finished You Can’t Touch My Hair, and suddenly I could much better imagine how Robinson would deliver the material she had written. This might be less of a problem for people who are already familiar with Robinson’s comedy and then pick up her book, but this was my introduction to her. However some of the pieces are definitely best suited to print form, for example the second essay is about black hair in the media, and includes a lot of photos.
Two of the more serious pieces that hit hard were “Uppity” and “The Myth of the Angry Black Woman.” In “Uppity,” Robinson recounts an acting job where she was called uppity by the white director when she asked for a minute to review her lines. After she called out the director, he apologized so profusely, and displayed his guilt so dramatically that Robinson wound up being responsible for consoling him for his racist behaviour. “The Myth of the Angry Black Woman” is a bit meandering to start with, but ends up being just as loaded. Robinson admits that the piece was hard to write, but when she eventually gets down to the point, her story about being the only black student in the senior thesis workshop of her creative writing program is gut-wrenching. The workshop normally enforced a very strict rule that the person whose work was being critiqued had to listen silently to the criticism without defending themselves. But when another student debuted a very racist master/slave romance and Robinson had to give her critique, the white student who had written the piece cried and tried to defend her work, while the rest of the class and the teacher looked on.
The piece that made me laugh the hardest was “Casting Calls for People of Color That Were Not Written by People of Color,” which highlights the absurdities faced by non-white actors. The casting calls are parodied examples that highlight the different types of clichés that are common in roles for people of color created by white writers and directors. I think part of the reason this piece works so well is that it is clearly meant to be delivered in print form, whereas some of the other essays, while funny, seemed like they were intended for verbal delivery but adapted to written form. Overall I am torn about whether to recommend print or audio for this title, as it really is a bit of a hybrid. If you are in it for the comedy, I would say that audio is definitely the route to go.
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