Of all the racial anxieties that plagued me throughout my half-Jewish, half-black childhood, few could compete with the stresses I experienced around lotion.
Most white people think of lotion merely as a way to occasionally hydrate your skin. But for black folks, it’s a necessity, a must-have, and practically a way of life. Lotion is something to be pumped out, distributed, and endlessly lathered. It must always be on hand and ready for action. It takes up an entire aisle at the drugstore and best bought in bulk and bounty. But mostly, lotion is the first line of defense against ash.
Ash, in short, is the layer of dead dry-skin cells that build up on everyone’s arms and legs, especially in summer. White people would simply call it “dry skin” — or maybe “dead skin,” if they’re feeling particular. The problem is that dead skin is actually very, very chalk white. For the fair-skinned, this can create a nuisance after a spell at the beach or a session in a tanning salon. But for black people, dead skin collects conspicuously on their limbs like ash — dusky, dusty, and begging to be removed.
And that’s where the lotion comes in. Because nothing suggests self-neglect like ashy skin. It’s a sign of classlessness that transcends age, sex, and location, though centuries of colorism ensure that the lightest-skinned black folks typically have the most access to wealth — and least ash!
When I lived in Harlem, I’d hear young kids fret about ash; my suburban uncle demanded it be destroyed; those bougie black woman on The Real Housewives of Potomac, I’m sure, would rather leave home without their wigs than be caught with ashy skin; author Danzy Senna wrote extensively about ash and lotion in her landmark novel Caucasia; and Gabrielle Union recently tweeted about her battles with the fancy-yet-tiny hotel lotion bottles meant to soothe ashy skin.
Ashiness is just one more burden that comes with blackness — like racism and poor customer service. Ashiness is real; #BlackSkinMatters. So lotion is applied, almost religiously, to darker skin to combat ash at the source. Find a bunch of black people in the sun (or at the office), and there’s certain to be a few mini-tubes of Nivea or Eucerin — the brand even cleverly added the word “ashy” to their labels — among them.
The problem for me is, because my skin is the color of caramel Frappuccino, I was never dark enough to truly get ashy. Some people might consider this a blessing — one less step in my highly negligent daily skin-care routine. But it actually only further isolated me from the black folks around me. The feeling was most acute at summer camp, which I fanatically attended in heavily wooded areas across northern California for most of my childhood. My strongest allegiance was to Camp Mendocino, which — as the name suggests — was set in Mendocino County, where the marijuana grew tall and the redwoods taller.
The camp was operated by the Boys & Girls Club of San Francisco and drew a motley crew of poor black and brown kids from the inner city, working-class whites from the South Bay, mildly accented Chicanos from the Mission District, and mixed-multi types like myself. I was usually the only Jew, and, this being Northern California, it was mostly viewed with indifference or as something exotic, like, say, homeopathy or vegetarianism.
Most of the camp counselors were black and typically came heavily armed with vast supplies of lotion (along with other era must-haves, like Rick James mixtapes and spray bottles of “activator”). Each afternoon, after shower time and before flag-raising, the black campers would line up to be lathered while their elders instilled in them the importance of proper skin care and moisturizing. It made for a curious, if not comedic, scene; these muscly, tracksuit-wearing brothers talking up amateur dermatology to their younger — and worryingly — ashier selves.