An unwitting social experiment I’ve conducted over the years (pre-COVID): I’m at the store. My hands feel unmoisturized, as if the skin on them is desiccating from the cartilage upward. I look in my handbag. I haven’t adequately prepared for my day with any container of emollients: No lotion, no shea butter, nothing. I furtively, frantically scan my surroundings for another Black woman. Seeing one, I approach her.
“Hey, sis? Do you have any lotion?”
Those two questions signal that first, I mean no harm, and second, I’m not ashamed to ask for care.
Rarely without fail, the other Black woman dives into her purse/backpack/tote bag and pulls out a tube, a bottle, a jar of the requested skin softener. I squeeze or scoop out a dab and quickly, efficiently rub my hands together—palms, back of the hands, especially in between the fingers—as I thank her for rescuing me from certain social embarrassment.
“You’re welcome, sis.” We smile at each other in an intersecting moment of feminine understanding and racial uplift: another sistah redeemed from ashiness.
Ashiness, at its core, colloquially means dry skin—which, along with having red blood, is a trait much of humanity shares at some point in our lives. On skin tones that are darker than a phenotypically pale-skinned white person, the higher contrast of the grayish-white patches and the surrounding area makes the condition more visible.
However, in that alchemy of Black social struggle, Black personal grooming, and Black linguistic cool, it has metastasized from the dermatological to the cultural and political. Ashy signifies not only a dry epidermis but also a careless lack of self-upkeep and communal neglect.
“I don’t know if I can pinpoint the origins of it or its particular trajectory,” says cultural critic and author Yaba Blay, whose award-winning self-published book, One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, has been reprinted by Beacon Press. “I’m coming from the perspective of someone raised by Ghanaian parents. Ashiness was never an option. And it wasn’t something someone had to sit me down and talk to me about. These are things that are cultural norms for us [Black people].
“Speaking as a Black woman, I know that, in the history of white supremacy, there is an investment in a particular level of presentation and performance of our value. Ash reflects that you don’t care about your appearance and/or you may not be able to care about your appearance.”
Blay tells a story from her own childhood in New Orleans to which quite a few Black people across the African diaspora will nod with nostalgia. “I have so many memories of being raised by a West African mother and going to school and people saying to me, ‘Oh! You’re so shiny!’ My mother did not play that. You were not going to leave her house and not look moisturized.”
The battle against ashiness also reflects Black people’s ingenuity under white supremacy’s withering dehumanization. In her research on Black hair care before the days of renowned hair entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, Blay states that historical documents on the materials Black women used to moisturize their hair—including axle grease and animal fat—hint that Black people have used similar inventiveness in taking care of our skin.
However, Blay adds, while combatting ashiness is about self-care under white supremacy’s plethora of cruelties, “the level of care and the anxiety about care [under that system of oppression]…it’s not about white people. It’s about how we communicate our value to one another, that [white supremacy] will not keep us down.” Thus, Blay continues, the handling of dry skin becomes a baseline of in-group aesthetics.