Brow Beat

John Oliver Teaches Fellow White People What They Need to Know About Black Hair

It’s more than just “stop asking to touch it.”

John Oliver sits in his void next to a black-and-white photo of someone running a hot comb through a young Black woman's hair
HBO / Screengrab from YouTube

For the most part, Last Week Tonight involves John Oliver serving as an expert (or a mouthpiece for experts) on any given topic. On this Sunday’s episode, however, Oliver began the show by admitting that he wasn’t the ideal person to talk about the night’s focus. What was the episode about? Black hair of all kinds: natural styles, braids, weaves, and so on. “The fact is, on the whole, white people don’t really understand a lot about Black hair,” Oliver said. “By the way, if your first reaction to that was, ‘Hey, not all white people,’ maybe look inside yourself and figure out why that is your response to things.”

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Continuing on, Oliver noted how the impulse to police Black hair—i.e. to squash and erase cultural heritage and history, and perpetuate racist standards—affects life everywhere. Black people of all ages experience this prejudice, from a 3-year-old who was targeted by her teacher for using coconut oil in her hair; to a woman who was denied a job because she refused to get rid of her dreadlocks; to Black actors noticing that, while in the hair and makeup trailer, they wouldn’t receive much attention because the artists on set didn’t know how to deal with their hair.

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Oliver also pointed out the negative effect of appropriation of Black hairstyles—like Bo Derek’s cornrows in 10. He recalled an incident in which a Black woman’s braids were attributed to drawing inspiration from 10 rather than belonging to her culture, exemplifying how Black people are discriminated against for their hair, while white people are allowed to wear weaves and braids without any question.

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What can we do to bring an end to discrimination against Black hairstyles? Oliver suggests the CROWN Act—an acronynm that stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”—which encompasses proposed anti-discrimination laws centered on Black hair. While some states have passed CROWN Act bills along these lines, Oliver also notes that Republican lawmakers around the country have pushed back against them. The battle wages on.

To end the show, Oliver brought on three more qualified guests to speak on the topic of Black hair: Uzo Aduba, Craig Robinson, and Leslie Jones. Together, the three actors made it clear that there was an easy way to learn more about Black hair: Google. And, if the audience—specifically white people—were still disinclined to educate themselves, there was an even easier solution for dealing with Black people’s hair. Per Aduba: “Leave us the fuck alone.”

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