“I’m an African-American woman. My good friend, who is a white male, very progressive and pretty much a hippie, is thinking about getting dreadlocks. He’s been asking me for my opinion about it and whether it would be offensive to black people, and I’m not sure. I don’t know if it’s fair to say, ‘Don’t try to make your hair look like the hair of someone of another race,’ when we all know that a lot of black women who have failed to embrace their natural hair texture have weaves that imitate European hair. In that sense, I somewhat think we as Americans are a hair and style melting pot now. So I don’t want to apply a double standard. Still, I’m aware that a lot of black people really hate when white people have locks, and I’d hate to set him up for criticism or for people to judge or dislike him for this choice. I know this is complicated and wonder how it would be best to advise my friend.“ –“Dreading” Your Response
I started off by trying to get some perspective on the “a lot of black people really hate it” bit of your question. (That view is expressed in no uncertain terms — if a bit more snarkily than analytically — in this Thought Catalog post directed at “all these wannabe Rastafarians or whatever you’re calling yourselves these days running around.”) I reached out to Gene Demby of NPR’s Code Switch blog on race, ethnicity and culture. After all, he recently wrote an in-depth piece on the complicated landscape of cultural appropriation in American society, noting, “It’s much harder now to patrol the ramparts of our cultures, to distinguish between the appreciators and appropriators.”
Clearly, there aren’t easy answers here, whether we’re talking about the Harlem Shake, hip-hop or hair.
But the term “cultural appropriation” — which Demby notes is normally thought of as “white people taking an interest in some aspect of minority culture and profiting from it” — didn’t come to mind when he heard your dilemma.
Instead, it was the potential lock wearer’s request for approval or permission that struck him as “weird,” to put it mildly. And that’s pretty much what I said in last week’s response to the white guy who wanted to check in with his black friends about the n-word in rap songs. Maybe the inquiry itself is a much-needed reminder that one black person can’t speak for all, and a caution against a sense of entitlement after getting the “not racist” or “not offensive” all-clear.
I don’t think you can do that for your friend with your really oversimplified comparison (of the “Why don’t we have White History Month, then?!” variety) of white people with locks to black people with weaves.
Weaves certainly come with their own set of debates and opinions about what looks good versus unnatural, or elegant versus “stupid.” Yes, there are strong views on the messages they communicate about what’s going on inside the heads they adorn. But those discussions are largely internal to the black community, and you don’t help anyone by acting as if the reactions to your friend’s hair will be made of exactly the same stuff.
When it comes to white people wearing dreadlocks, which are associated in the public mind with Rastafarians specifically, and black people more generally (although they’ve apparently been embraced by a variety of cultures just about forever), the public is going to read the choice in ways that go way beyond personal aesthetics.
As I publicly mulled over your question, one friend said, in a comment that captured a large swath of reactions, “Now, I could not care less. In the great struggle, if there is anger to be directed at whites, those are not the ones to be upset with. But when i was young and angry, I used to hate whites with dreads. I called them ‘culture rapists.’ “