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Questioning the chaos of calling out cultural appropriation

Dreadlocks worn by Justin Bieber and an American student have hit headlines recently – but who does a hairstyle belong to? We look at all sides of the argument

The concept of cultural appropriation is a topic that divides many, and the debate recently made headlines again when Justin Bieber posted a selfie of himself sporting dreadlocks and a video of a black student telling a white teenager to cut his dreads went viral. There’s a lot to consider when thinking about who a hairstyle or a culture ‘belongs’ to – this piece is written jointly by two writers, Kemi Alemoru and Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, who have differing opinions on the matter.

KEMI ALEMORU

I couldn’t be more tired of this shit. Nothing makes my eyes roll like a fresh storm of outrage about ‘cultural appropriation’ – although I acknowledge the irony that I’m probably about to start one again. It’s a conversation point that’s never far from the headlines, but in the last few weeks, the world has been gifted with not one but two high-profile instances of aforementioned outrage. This time, it’s white people sporting dreadlocks who are provoking wrath – the first being a white student at an American university who was filmed being confronted over his hairstyle, the second none other than Justin Bieber, who posted a selfie sporting a new ’do.

Say it to yourself in your head and it starts to sound surreal: “Everybody is angry about Justin Bieber’s dreadlocks.” Admittedly, they didn’t look good – but are they racist? While the reaction to his new look was mostly negative, it was nothing compared to the one seen in that now-viral video confrontation, filmed at San Francisco State University.

The video, which now has more than 3.5m views, shows a black student asking if she can have some scissors to cut off the white guy’s dreads, saying he is not allowed to wear his hair that way because dreadlocks belong to black culture. The only thing more depressing than the video is the comments section below it. For example, YouTube user Dav Ze asked the pertinent question: “lolz why the dude didnt killed that negress right there?”

Fuck Dav Ze, obviously, but as someone who I suppose falls into the ‘negress’ category I’d like to delve deeper into the history behind this look. Dreadlocks are actually a prime example of an element of one culture mixing with many others. Today, we mostly associate them with Jamaican Rastafarians, but dreadlocks have been present throughout history. For rastas they symbolise a spiritual journey, but they’ve been worn by African Maasai warriors and even have biblical roots.

The style arrived in the West Indies as far back as 1844 via the ‘coolie’ trade, where workers from China and the Indian subcontinent were brought in to replace the now-illegal slaves. Dreadlocks were worn by holy men of the Hindu religion, replicating the hair of the Indian god Shiva. Ethiopians, Kenyans, ancient Greeks and ancient Egyptians wore dreadlocks for various reasons. Celts were said to have “hair like snakes”. So when we talk about dreadlocks belonging to black culture, that is something of an overstatement. By making them an exclusively black style, we are oversimplifying the rich and complex history of a hairstyle which has had religious and political significance to different groups around the world.

“I feel extremely uncomfortable at the idea of limiting someone to a certain set of behaviours and styles because of their skin colour”

These cultural appropriation scandals can often feel driven by people who are so left wing they’ve gone right. Policing people and telling them what they can and can’t do with their hair feels draconian and dull. I feel extremely uncomfortable at the idea of limiting anyone to a certain set of behaviours and styles because of their skin colour.

Of course, there is something to be said for the fact that Kylie Jenner has profited from surgically enhancing her lips, or that white stars can come off as pioneers by sporting looks that have been cultivated for years by black people. Cornrows, or what I affectionately refer to as ‘doo doo’ plaits, have become a ‘new’ trend known as ‘boxer braids’ adopted by white celebrities. Amandla Stenberg made a valid point when she said “I wish America loved black people as much as it loves black culture.”

While it can be irritating, even humorous, to see white people praised for doing something that other cultures have been doing for years, the rhetoric around appropriation is wrong and petty. It feels like nobody can escape the label of ‘cultural appropriator’. In my eyes, it’s not that serious. People just look lame, but that’s their call.

Even Beyoncé has been accused of culturally appropriating. She was criticised for incorporating Indian cultural and religious practices into the video for the Coldplay collaboration “Hymn for the Weekend”. But when did we decide to lambast an individual for exploring cultures other than their own? Not only does it make you look incredibly bitter, but it only increases cultural and racial division, of which we don’t need any more on this inexplicably divided earth.

There’s so much more to black culture than hairstyles. If I had to choose between fighting against harmful stereotypes and social inequality or little Timothy and his new ill-advised dreads, I know which one I’m going to spend my energy on.

Experimentation and borrowing is not a crime. Without it we wouldn’t have jazz, Tex-Mex or even Christmas trees (look it up). Fashion and music thrive when they are influenced by a wide range of styles. It can show that people are receptive to your culture, not that they wish to steal it from you. The politics of hair, particularly in the black community, is a touchy subject.

If you straighten it you want to be white, if you retain your natural hair texture it is a bold statement. Some things might just be as simple as ‘I just do what I feel like.’ Some black women chemically alter their hair texture and spend money on human hair that once belonged to someone in Asia. These actions now fall under many names: cultural assimilation, appropriation, appreciation.

“If I had to choose between fighting against harmful stereotypes and social inequality or little Timothy and his new ill-advised dreads, I know which one I’m going to spend my energy on”

Minorities face much bigger problems than appropriation and when there are real issues that need to be addressed, you know, like systemic racism and police brutality, I really can’t be bothered discussing Bieber’s dreadlocks. He’ll cut them off and move on to a new trend – or just wash his hair – but our social problems will still exist.

I have a (white) family friend from South Carolina who grew up in a segregated society and often refers to his time as a teenager growing up during the civil rights movement. He often discusses how his love of black music gave him and the black community a common ground during a time when it was largely believed they were fundamentally different. It started with immersing into someone else’s culture and ended with him becoming more socially aware, more politically engaged. The embracing, blending and opening of cultures can help aid understanding, and drive creativity.

In a cultural climate where, in the US, the Black Lives Matter movement has been started to tackle racial hostility, and we have very real issues of our own in the UK, white people supposedly copying an exclusively black hairstyle feels low on the priority list. It is only hair, FFS.

CHARLIE BRINKHURST-CUFF

Hair is just hair. Except when it’s not – with dreadlocks, there are ongoing discussions over whether white people should feel able to lock their hair. Of course, telling someone they cannot do something on the grounds of arbitrary notions of race is always going to provoke a strong emotional response – the comments under articles on the topic saying things like, “You are honestly going to deny people freedom of expression based on the colour of their skin?” reveal as much.

But before we start equating white people being challenged on deciding to dread their hair with black people being forced to sit at the back of the bus, there are a few things to take into consideration. While I have no idea as to whether Justin Bieber, who in the past few weeks now famously (or perhaps infamously) has decided to twist his peroxide-blonde mane into a head full of dreads, knows about the sufferings black people have gone through with their hair, too much of this conversation has focused around whether or not white people should be ‘allowed’ to dread their hair.

Of course they are allowed. Just as I was allowed to wear a bindi to that club night out in south London a few years back before I got ‘woke’, just as my best mate donned a headdress for a fancy dress party without realising that, according to one Native American writer, it constitutes to the “denigration of restricted symbols”, and just as each Halloween there’s still at least one news story about someone – or in last year’s case, many people – wearing blackface.

Comparing blackface and white people having dreadlocks might seem extreme, but it helps to simplify this discussion. Unlike with blackface, the history of dreadlocks is not as cut and dry, but the reasons why some black people feel uncomfortable seeing white people with dreads often comes from the same place: the racism and prejudice they have faced.

“We are conditioned every day, from the all-white magazine covers that dominate the shelves of WHSmith to the lack of representation we have in the media, to believe that our natural beauty is not enough”

I had dreadlocks from ages eight to 13 or 14, after my mum decided she’d had enough of my screaming and crying every time she went to do my hair and gave me an ultimatum. “Either you can shave your afro off like mine or you can have dreads,” she said, and proceeded to braid my hair unevenly, leaving one small plait sticking out at the front.

It is a testament to how quickly and easily afro hair can dread that within a few months what once were braids became dreadlocks, the puffy regrowth twisted with oils as it should have been. The ignorance and mild bullying-type behaviour that I faced due to my dreadlocks was hugely influential in my decision to chop them off in my second year of high school.

These microaggressions ranged from young boys telling me I looked like a man to people insisting that all dreadlocks were unclean. Once they were cut off I was initially ecstatic. Until I looked in a mirror and saw the short tufts of my afro sticking up, very brown and very foreign. Learning about chemical hair straightener that could make my hair look ‘white’ eventually provided solace.

What this story serves to point out, I hope, is that to say dreadlocks are ‘just hair’ undermines how difficult it can be to fit into Eurocentric norms (i.e. in this context, the pressure to have straight hair) as a black person. There is a reason beyond ease that points to why most of my black friends don’t wear their hair naturally, choosing straight, long weaves and relaxer over their natural helix curls.

We are conditioned every day, from the all-white magazine covers that dominate the shelves of WHSmith to the lack of representation we have in the media, to believe that our natural beauty is not enough. While not every black person with dreadlocks will have faced prejudice, it is the impact that Eurocentric ideals have had which will have likely fuelled the anger that led to the viral video which saw a black woman aggressively insinuating that she would cut off white student Cory Goldstein’s dreadlocks.

It doesn’t absolve her actions, but it could go some way towards explaining them. That black people have felt the pressure to change their hair since slavery and colonialism (potato and lye burned our hair straight, grease slicked it down), and that when we do wear our hair in natural styles are told that they are ‘unprofessional’, ‘smell of patchouli oil or weed’ or ‘inappropriate’ might not mean a lot in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement in some people’s eyes, but in my opinion we need to fight these microaggressions as hard as we can, as they ultimately all point to the pervasiveness of racism in our society.

Personally? It doesn’t bother me when I see white people with dreadlocks. And up until very recently in both the white and black community, the main reason I heard bandied around as to why white people shouldn’t wear dreadlocks was because they look bad – not because of any kind of knowledge or understanding of Rastafarianism – which is arguably the culture that dreadlocks are most synonymous with, at least in the UK.

I hate this assertion, because there is nothing inherently wrong with how white people look with dreads. Ultimately, our problem with the way white people look with dreadlocks ties in very neatly with society's general obsession with everyone looking the same and not breaking any kinds of cultural conventions.

However, the impact of whiteness benefiting from aspects of culture that are historically black is not to be dismissed. As put by Syreeta McFadden in The Guardian, “a fashion magazine would celebrate Kylie Jenner’s side cornrows as a ‘bold statement’ and simultaneously regard darker-skinned women donning the same style with lesser esteem”.

The argument that black people have reason to be wary of white celebrities adopting aspects of practices they see as their own because they have been affected by the claws of Eurocentric beauty ideals seems stronger, in my opinion, than the one which centres around where dreadlocks ‘come from’ and which culture has more claim over them.

Black people are not homogenous. Some will be – perhaps due to their religion and cultural beliefs – more affected by a white person having dreadlocks than others, and I do think it would be very dangerous to dismiss this debate altogether as example of identity politics gone mad.

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