For about the past year or so, I’ve been witness to a gradually increasing number of white people getting steadily angrier about cultural appropriation — or at least what they think cultural appropriation is. Here’s an example of a failure to communicate to other white people, what the designer of this poster apparently can’t even understand themselves:
Let’s see. In the words of other white people who think this poster is particularly effective in communicating anything, we’re allegedly looking at a criticism of white people who wear dreads, white people who appropriate Maori artwork for tattoos, white people who co-opt Hindu symbolism, and/or white people who practice “gift shop spirituality”; though the subject of this poster is completely ambiguous, even to those who anti-white rage in “solidarity” over it. The only problem with this list of grievances is that there is no Maori or Hindu artwork in this picture. Instead, I’m just going to focus on the “issue” of white people wearing dreads, and pretend that this is what the poster is getting at, for the rest of this post.
Racism is an incredibly powerful word, evoking and describing an intersecting network of systemic barriers operating at the expense of all people of colour in society for the maintenance of white supremacy and systemic white privilege. It evokes and describes the concept of systemic oppression on the global scale. This is an unavoidably important point in this conversation, because racism is not simply something individual people do that’s wrong, misguided, or indignant and disrespectful towards people of colour, either generally or individually. Racism has many faces (this is not a pun), and racism is internalized to varying degrees by all individuals in society, but individual acts of white privilege are not racism. Those individual acts may very well be racist, in that they embody an individual portion of the same character as systemic racial injustice, but they are not racism. Even the entire collective of individual acts of white privilege in a given society is not racism, but merely a cog in the greater mechanical structure that maintains social inequality on the basis of socially constructed race/ethnicity*. Not that most raging white self-appointed “social justice activists” will acknowledge this, because to do so would be to generate urgent work requiring them to make actual changes to their own lives that run much deeper than their skin colour—which is about where their understanding of the concept of race/ethnicity stops as well.
What the designer of this poster suggests, however, is that racism is merely individual acts of white privilege. But if that’s true, then where does white privilege come from, exactly? If it is not inherited by virtue of birth lottery within a society that treats a particularly artificial construct of whiteness as the ultimate, objective, good, right, just, and fair, then from where can white privilege be said to originate? The relative safety and convenience afforded to white people under a justice system that disproportionately punishes people of colour while disproportionately depriving the same communities of even the prospect of justice for violations of their inalienable rights, is not some simple accident of unquantifiable probability, of all court justices in our society over the past 500 years all miraculously being brought up by racist parents amidst racially bigoted role models. The decision to petition for or against justice to people of colour in this system is not held by one person alone; and the maintenance of laws (and law enforcement) that set people of colour up to either spend time in prison or be murdered in the streets before their own children have graduated high school is not a responsibility or privilege held by individuals who have been racially brain-washed. This very complicated example of just one of the many faces of racial injustice is held and maintained collectively by all members of society, and that is what racism is—not what just one person is doing.
* It is also important to acknowledge that the fabrication of whiteness which characterizes the ultimate achievement of white supremacy isn’t even attainable to most white people, let alone to people of colour — not that most raging white self-appointed “social justice activists” will acknowledge this, either, for many of the same reasons as they avoid acknowledging the magnitude of racism while impulsively flinging such powerful terminology around.
Cultural appropriation is another incredibly powerful concept, the naming of which not only evokes and describes the outright theft of another person’s identity, but also evokes and describes the total disregard for where that identity comes from and why it is embodied in a particular way. Cultural appropriation, unlike racism, is often representative of individual acts — most often of settler privilege. Tattooing and other forms of artwork that are specific to culture is an exceptionally useful example, because those tattoos, beadwork, and designs on clothing often directly communicate within one’s own community, as well as to neighbouring peoples, a) who your blood family is (i.e., your natal tribe or sept), b) where or from whom your family is traditionally believed to have descended from (i.e., your family’s clan), and/or c) specific significant accomplishments or roles that you individually hold or carry with you among your community (e.g., certain rites of passage or ceremonies that have been passed on to you and very few others). However, most people removed from this culture by at least a minimum distance do not recognize or acknowledge the meanings of tattoos that are specific to the culture(s) upon which they gaze in greedy “admiration” (an often misplaced emotion driven by Othering and driving to consume). Thus, when such people steal a culturally specific style of tattoo design or artwork and apply it to themselves or sell it to other people who are also removed from the culture(s) whence it came, they are perpetrating both a theft of culture and a fraudulent statement of their own relationship to it. The theft and fraud that are perpetrated through cultural appropriation are such important points to understand and accept about what cultural appropriation even means, that their significance literally cannot be understated.
Now what the designer of this poster is suggesting by claiming that white people wearing dreadlocks is racism and cultural appropriation, is that dreadlocks are one of these culturally specific identifiers. One can reasonably assume from this “argument” (if you can even call it one) that dreadlocks are culturally specific to the Rastafari movement, which are predominantly Black communities — a fact which is determined entirely by both the nature and origin of the Rastafari movement, which evolved from within anti-colonial Jamaican communities in the 1930s, and is premised in part on the belief that the promised second coming of Christ has occurred, and that the historical figure who represents the return of Christ and the renewal of covenant between God and his chosen people is the former emperor of Ethiopia, the late Haile Selassie I, or Ras Tafari as he was known prior to his coronation in 1930. Most raging white self-appointed “social justice activists” do not appear to have ever done their homework or even listened to devout Rastas discussing their spirituality—perhaps because they are already far too busy policing other peoples’ spiritualities for perceived transgressions of racism and cultural appropriation. The relationship of this particular spirituality to the history of white settler colonialism is obviously quite complicated, even superficially, and as such, that alone warrants plenty of speculation and criticism of whites who claim to participate in it. However, it is also important to note that the fact that dreadlocks are common among Rastas is not evidence that they are specific to Rastafari culture, or that they communicate something specific within it. If anything, Rastafari-inspired reggae music; visual artwork (including clothing) incorporating the repetition of yellow, red, green, and black; and the use of marijuana (translated into abuse by many non-Rastas); are all significantly more culturally specific than dreadlocks ever have been, and yet, are almost never associated with charges of racism and cultural appropriation, no matter how pervasive it is among people who remain ignorant of their significance to Rastas. Especially the raging white self-appointed “social justice activists” whose understanding of race/ethnicity, racism, and cultural appropriation is about as superficial as their understanding of the Rasta movement.
Asceticism is a range of practices that embody a rejection of the material world, especially in relation to beauty “standards” and other social constructions of beauty. Jain ascetics embody this practice not only through meditation and rejection of hunger (i.e., eating only the amount of food that fits within one’s cupped hands per day), but through their choices in clothing as well (or lack thereof, among some sects of Jainism). Buddhist ascetics embody this practice through similar means (i.e., Buddhism having derived in part from Jainism and in part from Hinduism), as well as through strict rules relating to sexuality and gender (i.e., celibacy and who is permitted to pass on traditional teachings as devoted ascetics) — which at times even explicitly forbid people of certain sexualities and/or genders from participating in meditation, or even joining the Sanga. Hindu ascetics embody this practice as well, through yoga (which, interestingly, is almost never associated with charges of racism or cultural appropriation, despite how it has come to be defined in Western culture), as well as through rituals demonstrating a rejection of one’s material body (e.g., head-shaving ceremonies or the wearing of one’s hair in dreads; ceremonies in which one receives cheek and tongue spears before performing an ecstatic trance-like dance). Asceticism has also been and still is practised in various ways within Abrahamic faiths, including but not limited to the Rastafari movement.
Rasta Asceticism & White Optics
Rastas often wear their hair in dreads primarily for reasons relating to spiritual asceticism, but for many Rastas, wearing their hair in dreads may also be for explicitly political reasons relating to subverting white supremacist beauty standards, which are imposed relentlessly upon Black bodies in often inherently violent ways (and have been for several centuries). We live in a society where for a Black person to allow their own hair to grow out in the natural state it occurs in is seen as an act of radicalism—and it is often socially marginalized accordingly. Apparently for a lot of raging white self-appointed “social justice advocates”, this is a fact all too easily forgotten. Within the Rastafari movement, wearing one’s hair in dreadlocks is not considered a requirement of all or any of its adherents; is not initiated as a rite of passage or a part of one; and does not communicate anything specific about one’s origins, family, or culture.
Raging white self-appointed “social justice activists” however, often believe that “anyone” (i.e., white people) other than a Black Rasta wearing dreadlocks is perpetrating cultural appropriation and racism, by attempting (either consciously or unconsciously) to somehow steal The Black Identity™ (as if there was just one and it’s defining quality was dreadlocks) and fraudulently convey themselves as Beyond Race. I’m not even kidding. This is not a strawman of a raging white self-appointed “social justice activist”. It is literally exactly why angry whiteys get angrier at other whiteys when they see them wearing their hair in dreads. They get equally furious about white people wearing their hair in mohawks — or even using the word mohawk to describe that particular hair style, often claiming that it’s an appropriation of either Mohawk culture or—believe it or not—an indigenous culture they can’t even refer to by name because they heard somewhere (that they also can’t specify) that it’s derogatory to refer to members of the Mohawk tribe as Mohawk. White people have actually said these things. To me. And countless others. Apparently they don’t actually spend any time in the same room as anyone from Mohawk Nation (which is composed of multiple tribes, in case you weren’t aware), and this is probably because when they show up to a community “march against racism”, they spend all their time hanging around other white people and acting afraid of everyone who is visibly racialized around them. This kind of shit is a prime example of the view through white optics of what constitutes cultural appropriation: a white supremacist gaze, conscious of its own oppressive nature as if for the first and only time, loudly condemning anyone who appears white but who looks foreign when placed next to either immediately self-evident structures of white supremacy or particularly racialized people of colour (such as Rastas).
What these raging white self-appointed “social justice activists” seem to neglect paying any attention to is their own anger as a function of their white privilege. They also don’t seem to be aware of the concept of white optics, and how this self-awareness is absolutely integral to their effectiveness (or futility) as allies against the racism that makes them so abundantly furious. Additionally, they impulsively fling tremendously evocative concepts around, such as racism and cultural appropriation, as if they were trump cards and daggers they could hurl at their perceived enemies (even when they are fighting on the same fucking side), without even the slightest understanding beyond a very superficial dusting of the topic. I have some advice for all of these white “social justice activists”: white people wearing dreads aren’t perpetrating cultural appropriation and aren’t racism. You would understand that if you even understood the words you’re using to formulate your thoughts.