Quick quiz: When John Oliver concludes a Last Week Tonight story with the following, exasperated pronouncement, what is he talking about?
It doesn’t belong to white people, doesn’t affect white people, and white people don’t really need to have an opinion on it.
And before out there anyone interrupts by noting, “Not all white people,” Oliver had a preemptive admonition for that, advising, “Look inside yourself and figure out why that is your response to things.”
Times up—it’s Black hair! That was the subject of Oliver’s main story on Sunday, a topic the definitively not-Black host was quick to point out was not the ideal subject for a pasty British guy whose own hair looks like he goes to “and old-timey barber named Valentino” and asks for “the tidy Liza Minelli.” Still, Oliver will put himself (and his staff) into deep research mode on everything from predatory lenders to the practice whereby old white plutocrats fuck around and find out by filing nuisance suits against a motivated Brit with HBO Legal’s deep pockets and a taste for comedy blood.
So Oliver did his usual in-depth exposé of just how, constitutionally, white people are incapable of keeping their metaphorical and all-too-literal hands off of Black people’s chosen hairstyles. (Go ahead and ask a Walmart manager why the Black hair products are locked up while the equally expensive white ones are sitting untended on the shelves.) Along the way, there were the usual cases of outed representative villainy, like the Banana Republic manager (since fired) who demanded a young clerk “just take out” her long, elaborately braided hair, because it looked “too urban” for a place called freaking Banana Republic. Or Chastity Jones, a Black woman denied a job for having dreadlocks because a (white) judge eventually ruled that discrimination laws don’t extend above Black people’s hairlines.
Then there’s Utah Republican (white) lawmaker Derrin Owens, who was seen voting against an anti-discrimination CROWN Act after first assuring a trio of aghast Black women that he, personally, thought little Black kids with cornrows were adorable, and he had the surreptitiously snapped photos on his phone to prove it. Or the Penn State alumnus (one David Peterson) who penned an irate letter to his alma mater because star football player, honor student, and Black person (guess which one mattered most to Peterson) Jonathan Sutherland dared wear his hair long enough to be seen outside his CTE-prevention helmet. Oliver rebuffed the now-sweaty Peterson’s explanation that he was just thinking of people’s impressions of Penn State by noting that Peterson graduated in the same year as disgraced and imprisoned Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky, so, yeah.
Still, John Oliver is, self-confessedly, not the guy to make the point that Black people’s hair is none of white America’s goddamned business, no matter how elaborately he’s learned the proper procedure for applying a lace-front cornrow wig. (Yes, there was a fashion show where white models just appropriated Black hairstyles in the klutziest way possible.) Bringing in a trio of more qualified Black celebrities to helpfully advise Oliver’s white viewership, Oliver threw to the equally delightful, variously styled likes of Craig Robinson, Uzo Aduba, and Leslie Jones, who patiently (well, at first) walked viewers through the issue. You know, like don’t touch Black people’s hair. Just do not. And, hey, there’s this thing called “Google.” As the trio noted, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can learn how to do literally everything online. Settlers Of Catan, sourdough starter—anything. Google it. “It can be fucking Bing!,” Leslie roared, “You can learn what the fuck a box braid is, bitch!” Of course, maybe you’re not an internet person, in which case the smiling Robinson teed up a gentle alternative. “Fucking off is always an option,” advised Jones.