Another worried that a white person who makes the “personal choice” to “go Rasta” might also be communicating a perception that they have “new license to engage and be down without checking their privilege.”
One reader, when I pushed back on her take that locked white hair just looked “weird and unkempt,” said, “Wait! Maybe I do have racial feelings, ’cause I’m also kinda like, ‘Dammit, we can’t have nothing to ourselves!’ “
It goes without saying that in the best-possible world, everyone would get to know your friend as an individual rather than making assumptions about him based on his appearance.
But, as these reactions demonstrate — and as I’m sure you already know — we don’t live in that world.
As Demby put it, your buddy is going to have to accept that if he goes forward with the locks, he’ll be “actively ‘raceing’ himself.”
Here’s what I take that to mean. His hair is going to scream “black,” which is going to serve to emphasize his whiteness — the whiteness that, perhaps, people previously just saw as neutral, or didn’t consciously register. Once race is in the front of everyone’s consciousness, all sorts of assumptions about his motivations and inclinations — fair and unfair, reality-based and not, about his hair and his overall worldview — will follow. Quickly.
Which is, well, a lot like what it’s like to be a person of color.
So I think the most supportive thing you can do is to warn him about this burden. As a black woman, you know a little something about it (except that, of course, being seen through the lens of race first isn’t a choice for you).
Talk to him about what it’s like to be the involuntary recipient of everyone’s racial baggage as you’re just trying to move through the world.
By all means, tell him you’ll personally support whatever choice he makes about his hair. Hell, get him some coconut oil for his scalp and a cowrie shell or two to stick on the ends. But you’ll do him a disservice if you let him believe that he can borrow a traditionally black look, keep the style and be excused from the scrutiny.
The Root’s staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, 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: “N-Word, Rap and Black Friends: Awkward?“