On white dreads and cultural appropriation

Posted at 17:00 on 13 Aug 2018 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: anti-racism, Black hair, cultural appropriation, dreadlocks, racism, white supremacy

Yesterday I retweeted a tweet about white people wearing dreadlocks. Specifically, it was from a sex worker of colour addressing white sex workers who accessorise their look with locks.

The tweet called this out as cultural appropriation, and I retweeted it in solidarity with the anti-racist sentiment it expressed. Unfortunately this seems to have triggered several defensive responses from white people - including some surprising hostility.

Initially I just blocked the sender of this aggressive tweet, and considered simply walking away from the discussion entirely. However on reflection, as a white person, I think it behoves me to speak up on this issue and talk to other white people about it, explaining my reasons for sharing the tweet, and why this is an issue I care about.  

I decided to write my thoughts out as a blogpost rather than just responding on Twitter. This is a complex and nuanced issue, and I wanted to take the time to discuss it in all its complexity, rather than reducing the conversation to Twitter-length soundbites. 

When I saw the original tweet about cultural appropriation, it honestly didn't land with me that the last line might be construed as hateful. To be perfectly honest with you, I didn't perceive the last phrase ('makes you fucking worthless') as being a hateful statement. What I read in this tweet was hurt stemming from generations of injustice and oppression, and a forceful statement calling for white sex workers to behave more sensitively and more in solidarity with their co-workers of colour.

Of course no-one is worthless. However, I had no desire to tone police this statement from a Black sex worker and refuse to amplify their statement because their tone was 'too angry'. I feel their anger is fully justified.

To respond to the latter tweet first: of course people can wear their hair how they want. I'm not trying to tell anyone what they should or shouldn't do with their own hair. What I am saying is that all actions have consequences, and if a white person chooses to wear their hair in locks then it sends a certain message. That message has a cost to people of colour who feel the injustice of the way in which Black people's hair has been discriminated against, controlled, and policed for generations. When colonisers enslaved Black people they would often humilate them by shaving their heads, and Black hair (especially Black women's hair) is still a political issue.

The word "humans" in this tweet erases and minimises centuries of white supremacy and racist oppression. Colour blindness supports racism by refusing to acknowledge racial injustice.

For more than 100 years Black people's hair has been a political battleground. It is no coincidence that the Afro became a symbol of the Black Power movement in the 1970s. For a Black person to be considered employable, respectable, likeable or safe, they often must control and restrain their hair to conform to white beauty ideals. Such haircare is a massive industry in cities like London in the UK. In order to be seen as professional, many Black people have to spend hours of their lives and lots of money enduring uncomfortable, even painful, hair styling such as relaxing (burning it with chemical straighteners) and weaving the hair into tight braids, which takes ages, and are tight on the head, causing pain and tension. Young Black girls in particular are often not given the choice about how to wear their hair, and are forced to spend hours enduring these painful styling treatments in order to conform to a school's idea of what 'neat and tidy' looks like.

Dreadlocks are what many Black people's hair naturally forms if left unstyled, in direct contrast to the effort it takes to produce this style with a white person's hair. They are also a religious act in Rastafarianism. Yet Black people are routinely rejected by employers, considered intimidating, scary or criminal by police, bullied and subjected to racist abuse, and excluded from high-profile, high-earning positions of power, if they allow their hair to take its natural form. Black, bushy hair is often viewed by members of the establishment as untidy and ungroomed: in order to conform to ideals of respectability, Black people - particularly Black women - have to resort to techniques such as relaxing, or shaving their heads and wearing wigs, which are of course uncomfortable, hot and itchy.

This sounds historic, but it is very present: discrimination over racialised hairstyles is still very common. Dreadlocks are unavailable to Black people who want to look 'professional'. For white people to wear them in this context renders visible the deep inequality in the way that different ethic groups are treated - and it also constitutes further white plundering of Black culture, which is suppressed and downgraded in so many other ways.

Cultural appropriation isn't just about Black culture - it can happen wherever there is a cultural power gradient, particularly if that inequality derives from colonialism. For instance, when white people wear bindis to make themselves seem more cool or exotic, that has a similar cost to the women who wear it in South Asia.

There is a precedent of white people monetising important cultural/religious symbols and events that are taken from people of colour (such as white people engaging in Day of the Dead celebrations, or attending sweat lodges, without any understanding of the way in which white people destroyed the indigenous American cultures from which these traditions originate), for profit; while people from the culture of origin are not able to profit from their own heritage.

I wasn't always aware of this. It's only by reading the words of Black people online that I've started to learn. Here's some reading for starters, if you're interested in educating yourself. Search for "black hair politics" and "black women's hair politics" for more.

How Black Hair Is Repressed and Regulated, Legally, in the U.S.

'Wear a weave at work - your afro is unprofessional' (BBC)

Times Black Girls Were Suspended For Their Hairstyles

For a white person to adopt a dreadlock hairstyle in order to appear more punk, cool, or hippy, is something that of course they are entitled to do; but it has consequences. The cost is that it occurs as being some combination of:

  • Ignorant of the history of Black people's hair
  • Insensitive of the way in which choosing this hairstyle rubs into the faces of Black people who have experienced discrimination around their hair
  • Selfish, if they are aware of this injustice but choose to ignore it because they want to appear 'cool'.

This criticism applies to all white people, not just white sex workers. However the Tweet in question was posted as a call-out within the sex worker community, from one sex worker to another.

Of course Ariel is correct that not every hairstyle chosen by a white sex worker is about making more money - it can be about self-expression - but in my opinion the challenge stands. A white person choosing to express themselves with dreadlocks is ignorant, insensitive, selfish, or some combination of the three.

Cultural appropriation is a contested issue. Many people, including people of colour, feel that open cultural sharing is to be encouraged, and that people from different cultures welcome it when members of other cultures embrace their traditions and aesthetics. Our world is a melting pot, and avoiding cultural crossover completely is impossible an undesirable.

But cultural appropriation is not merely the act of adopting something from another culture. It only becomes appropriative when that adoption takes place within a specific context of colonisation and oppression. When a member of a colonising culture adopts something from a culture which their heritage has colonised in the past, this perpetuates a history of selfish taking, without regard for the rights and preferences of the colonised culture.

Hairstyles might not seem like much, but when you consider the way in which white Europeans and Americans have treated members of African nations over the last few centuries, and the egregrious way in which the labour, freedom, land and other resources, sovereignty, and bodies of these peoples has been taken, abused, and stolen - not to mention their culture and heritage, in the form of art pieces which now reside in Western museums - we can perhaps come a little closer to understanding. Knowing that history, it makes perfect sense to me that many people from these nations, which are still struggling to recover from the devastating violence of colonisation, resent it when white people cluelessly continue this pattern of cultural stealing, often without realising that that's what they're doing.

Racism is a very broad term, and there is a difference between aggressive acts of oppression and discrimination, and passive acts which are complicit in these former without challenging them. Perhaps cultural appropriation lies more towards the latter end, but I believe we white people can aspire to do better.

Let's work towards not just avoiding being overtly racist in our thoughts and actions, but privately and publically being actively anti-racist. Let's challenge thoughtless acts of appropriation, discrimination and injustice when we encounter them. Let's encourage each other to be more sensitive, more understanding, and more empathetic of the multi-generational pain which has been caused. Let's raise awareness of the context within which we are acting, and remind other white people of how their actions look if they unintentionally or otherwise perpetuate oppressive and racist behaviour. Let's work towards healing by acting in solidarity with people of colour, and deliberately choosing to behave in ways which makes that solidarity explicit. 

This isn't about telling people how to wear their hair. You can do what you like. I shared this tweet to amplify a statement which reminds all of us to be more aware of the heritage of racism and colonisation that we have all been born into. None of us asked to be born into this deeply unjust society, but it's on us to see with open eyes the truth of where we are today, and how we got here. The past is not our fault (although white people continue to benefit hugely from its legacy, so we cannot divorce ourselves from it), but the future is up to us. 

To create a better future, we need to behave differently from how our ancestors behaved. That can start with the smallest things. It's very easy for me to avoid wearing dreadlocks; it doesn't cost me anything except perhaps giving up the chance to be regarded as cool in some people's eyes. I'm more interested in learning how to respect and support those who are fighting to combat racism. It can start with amplifying their voices,  not getting defensive, spending more time listening and less time taking criticism of white supremacy personally. I have no desire to argue with or hinder people of colour who are advocating for their rights, and wanting to be treated with the same respect that I inherited simply by being born white.

Respect is all of our birthright, and no one is more entitled to it than anyone else. For me, not wearing dreadlocks, and starting conversations about cultural appropriation, is an act of respect to the violent history of the way that this hairstyle has been treated by white people. It's not much to ask that we make this tiny sacrifice, and I'm happy to amplify the voices of people of colour expressing their frustration when that request isn't heard. If you want to be anti-racist, the first step is to put down your defensiveness, and listen to people of colour.

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