Phoebe Robinson Doesn't Owe You A Lesson
Throughout July, Bustle's Comedy IRL package is featuring photo shoots, profiles, and stories of the women in comedy who are using their craft to elevate female voices and speak out on important issues. Comedy is powerful as hell, and we're toasting the women who prove it. Check out the whole package here.
Phoebe Robinson gives great advice, even if she doesn't know she's doing it. Before even meeting her, I feel like I've learned so much from the comedian, podcast host, and author, and I want to know more. I want to ask her what to say to my workout instructor who casually used the word "thug" to describe a move. I want to ask her what to tell people who make me uncomfortable when they use "ghetto" as an adjective. I want to ask her about those mixed girl YouTube hair tutorials she mentions in her book. (Seriously, does she know one with shampoo suggestions?) I want to ask her all of these things, but Phoebe Robinson doesn't owe me a lesson. She doesn't owe anyone one. So instead, I start by asking her about Bono.
"It was really a dream come true because he was so sweet and kind, and he was just, like, really cool," she says of meeting the man she is famously obsessed with, when we chat in Bustle's studio. If you are unaware of her love, check out her book or either of her podcasts — it's hard to go very long without a mention of a U2 concert or a cool band T-shirt she found online or just something about Bono. She continues, "You’re always kind of afraid to meet people that you really admire ... but he was so nice and wonderful and kind, and it was literally the best moment of my life. It was so crazy.”
Even though Robinson is in a situation in which people are freaking out over her — getting her hair and makeup done for a photo shoot — she's still freaking out over Bono and the epic photo they took together. And while she's excited about meeting the U2 frontman, I'm excited about meeting her. It's this accessibility — for example, the fact that she, too, has celeb obsessions despite her growing fame — that drew me to Robinson so immediately as a fan.
Robinson is relatable — actually relatable, not Jennifer-Lawrence-tripping-at-the-Oscars relatable. It's almost ridiculous to even describe her that way. The 32-year-old puts all aspects of her personality out there in her writing, her podcast interviews, and her comedy. She moves from talking about what it feels like to be one of few black kids at her high school to writing about what kind of mattress you actually need if you're going to do "butt stuff" to interviewing A-listers like Tom Hanks about seeing George W. Bush pick up a dead bird with his bare hands.
But even when she's talking to a two-time Oscar winner, she stays "super normal," because she can't process what's happening. "My brain is just like, 'Haha, this is hilarious,'" she explains.
In her book, You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain, she seamlessly moves between light, humorous pop culture references to more serious topics, like race in America. She writes of facing microaggressions: "Holding my head high and rising above doesn't make me feel strong or fierce. It makes me feel stifled." Reading lines like this actually made me feel more in touch with who I am. I felt more connected to being a woman and with being black and being myself, because she is so open and confident about being black and being a woman and being herself.
Still, Robinson says that while black people might relate to certain aspects of her work more, her work isn't just for black readers or listeners.
"I just kind of wanted it to be for anyone who enjoys me," Robinson says of You Can't Touch My Hair. "I don’t go, ‘This is for white people’ or ‘This section is for black people.' I just really write about what I care about and hope that the people who read it enjoy it too and care about those same things, as well. I really just try and go from a place of ‘If this makes me laugh, I think I’m on the right track.’"
"I feel like my opinion is just as valid, so I’m going to talk and be loud."
Even though her book has the word "explain" in the title, she doesn't see herself as someone whose purpose is to teach things — for example, why you shouldn't touch a black person's hair without their permission or why the angry black woman stereotype needs to go. As she sees it, she is just talking about everyday life.
"I guess I never look at it as teaching, just more, this is my perspective on things and I feel like my opinion is just as valid, so I’m going to talk and be loud," she says with a laugh. "That’s really how I go about it as opposed to, like, ‘Oh let me teach the audience something,’ because I feel like I’m still learning about a lot of things, too. ... I just wanna have dialogue about stuff that I think should be talked about more."
Besides, it's literally not Robinson's job to educate people on what being a black woman is like. "I mean, this isn’t a seminar, you’re not paying me," she says. "There’s Google; it’s super helpful. There are books. You know? So I feel like there’s a way people can educate themselves without just being lazy and waiting for someone, so they can be like, ‘Oh well, my one gay friend told me this, so that’s how all gay people are.’ It’s like, no, that’s then just reducing gay people to this one kind of caricature that you created in your mind." And the same goes for reducing black women, or anyone else, to a stereotype.
"This isn’t a seminar, you’re not paying me, so I don’t want to feel like I have to teach people stuff all the time."
Robinson is simply adding to her voice to the many that are already out there, and her voice just so happens to be that of a black woman comedian who loves Daria and loses her mind when she meets Gabrielle Union. She's a very specific person and she lets us know so much about her interests and background, but in a way, that specificity makes her more universal — there's something for everyone in her. Even if you're a 50-year-old white dude, there is probably something about Robinson that you can relate to (Bono love, maybe?). If not, you'll still benefit from listening to her, reading her comedy, and just having her perspective out there in the world.
Robinson believes we're moving toward a world where people know more about each other and are therefore more accepting. And increased visibility of perspectives like hers doesn't hurt. She says that "narratives are being more inclusive now to include more stories from women and people of color and people in the queer spectrum," which means that people who aren't exposed to those stories — whether it be on TV, in film, in books, or on Twitter — or don't feel empathy for people who are different than themselves can get that exposure, especially if they seek it out. Robinson adds, "I think that in the future everyone will kind of just know the same things, hopefully."
On her podcast Sooo Many White Guys, Robinson tries to help move things along by emphasizing the importance of open-mindedness, but in a light, humorous way. With the segment "Across the Aisle," she highlights things like, for example, cute babies as an issue that everyone can agree on.
Robinson says she started working on the latest season of the podcast after "Donald Drumpf was elected." (She adds an "um, gross" for good measure.) She felt like there were already a lot of shows out there that were "preaching to the choir, either on the left or the right" and she made the choice to switch things up.
"I just think that it’s really important for us to be talking to other people who don’t agree with us as opposed to just writing something on Facebook and then being like, ‘You can unfriend me if you don’t feel this way.’ Like, I don’t know how much that really solves," she explains.
"I think that in the future everyone will kind of just know the same things, hopefully."
Robinson might not see herself as a teacher, but she's doing a damn good job at getting people to learn, whether that be from her own work or through inspiring people to dig deeper when informing their outlooks on the world. And if you need more of her comedy in your life, Robinson is set to star in a feature for Netflix called Ibiza, alongside Gillian Jacobs and Vanessa Bayer. She is also working on a second essay collection, in which she plans to talk about body issues, as well as money, because "everyone is stressed out about it." And, of course, there will be some more of her amazing pop culture references. She adds, "I think I’m going to write about meeting Bono."
After our interview, Robinson needs to borrow a meeting room I'm in to write her love letter to The Rock for Bustle. On my way out, I apologize for taking up the space, and she stops and says, "Don't say sorry." She says it too much, and there's really no need for it. I get another lesson, after all.
Styling: Gabby Prescod
Hair: Casey Geren using Alterna Haircare
Makeup: Rika Shimada at De Facto for MAC Cosmetics
Booking: Guillermo Perez/Bustle