Dear Race Manners:
Genuine question: Is lotion a black thing (especially for guys)? A random white dude at the gym asked me why I use all these “products” (basically face lotion and body lotion). I asked, “Don’t you use lotion?” He said, “For what!?” I know lotion is marketed mostly to women (if advertising is correct), but I just remember from the time I was young, my mom would scold me if I tried to walk out the door with ashy knees.
Do white people get ashy knees? Or is the invisibility of dry skin a light-skin privilege? And furthermore (here is the academic side to this), I’m now wondering about how race and gender intersect to produce different grooming practices for men of color that do not fit white constructions of masculinity. —Confused about Creams, Color and Culture
This is a fun question, because discussions of perceived racial differences that are completely free of any serious implications are so rare. We’re not talking about health disparities or education or practices related to child rearing, or even dress or hair (which are seemingly superficial but can actually have their own consequences when it comes to how we judge each other).
It’s just lotion.
So your inquiry falls into the category of things like the (made-up?) racial washcloth divide. And black-vs.-white (or are they regional?) preferences for pumpkin pie or sweet potato pie. On topics like these, opinions are passionate, if totally anecdotal, but the consequences don’t run very deep.
The flip side of that point is that few people are likely to attempt any serious inquiry into the question, “Is lotion a black thing?”
I did stumble upon a study whose content seems to support your hunch that, while we’re all at risk for parched skin, it simply shows a lot more on darker complexions than on lighter ones: “In people with darkly pigmented skin, classified as Fitzpatrick type IV, V, or VI skin, xerosis or dry skin can be associated with a whitish coloring and a reduction in skin shininess known as ‘ashiness.’”
Look at that—the science of ashiness. But in searching for data on race and the lotion lifestyle (or lack thereof), I came up—forgive the pun—dry.
But that’s what social media are there for, right? In a Facebook thread about this topic, responses that seemed to validate your theory poured in.
From black commenters:
* “Rag (aka washcloth) then baby oil then lotion were all essentials. Vaseline on the joints in winter. Same for man, woman, child. Visible ash or crust earned you the dozens for days.”
* “Our freshman year, there was a brother who was a year ahead who did stand-up. There was a BSA event up at the Quad, and he did 10 minutes on stage. The only joke I remember: ‘Lotta black folks in one room tonight. What’s goin’ on? Are they giving out free lotion?’ That joke alone killed. We were his after that.”
From white commenters:
* “I wasn’t raised to use lotion or anything. I do use a face cream and a hand cream in the winter. Generally I don’t like the feeling of lotion though.”
* “I use it but was taught to do so by the black ppl who helped raise me, not by my birth family. Check out comedian Bill Burr talking about learning to use lotion from living with black folks.”
And because there are people who will actually get upset about their moisture levels being mischaracterized by this piece, I’ll include this reminder that there are exceptions to every rule and every stereotype:
* “I have a really good friend who is white. She uses cocoa and shea butter, and she was doing that before she met me. When I went to her house and saw the cocoa butter, I almost fell out I told her she was an anomaly.”
But lotion is advertised widely and found in every drugstore—not just in the “ethnic” section, with relaxers, or off to the side, with the special shaving cream—so it can’t be that simple, right? One commenter suggested that it’s not that white people don’t use lotion—it’s just that black people have a more intense relationship with it:
* “I think all of the butters and Bath and Body and Body Shop and other similar retailers somewhat mainstreamed lotion as a bonus for added scent and moisture. In contrast, I think Black folk tend to see lotion as a non optional routine and almost medicinal, like you can’t miss a day or if you do, you are uncomfortable or there at the ‘try me’ section of the store trolling for lotion. I have had strangers ask me for hand lotion after using the bathroom. And I have given it to them feeling almost we are a secret society and I am saving them from the disaster of crackling and dry hands.”
I’d co-sign that.
The part of your question about gender rings true, too. You’re not the first black man I’ve heard say he was accused of doing something feminine by making lotion a regular part of his routine. And I suppose that makes sense if you view lotion as something one uses to be soft and lovely and good-smelling, versus something that’s a requirement to avoid the appearance of being covered in chalk. I can’t really answer the academic portion of your question, but I can say, yes, personally, I think you’re on to something. (Helpful, huh?)
So what’s the takeaway—besides some insight into why the lotions provided in hotel rooms are so uselessly watery and ridiculously small, and putting aside the fact that it was kind of weird for a stranger to inquire about your grooming practices?
What I think is most fascinating about your question is the reminder that sometimes we simply have no idea what’s going on with other people from different backgrounds. Forget stereotypes and biases related to stuff we talk about all the time—we have actual, huge blind spots where it never occurred to us that our experience might not be the only one. Moments like this keep that fact in perspective.
When it comes to you and the guy in the locker room, I can’t help wondering how many other, noncosmetic, nonashiness-related parts of your lives are so completely different that they’d make you ask each other, “For what!?”
Jenée Desmond-Harris, The Root’s associate editor of features, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: “What’s With the Fixation on Putting Black Boys in Ties?”