"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.' "
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?"