Emotionally Present / Race/Ethnicity

Talking About White People Wearing Dreads: I Flip My Fucking Gourd

There are times that, as a white person, I become consumed by fits of rage over white privilege and the ways it is acted upon by other white people. Most of those times, I made a deal with myself to step back and let go of it — not only for my own health but that of the people I surround myself with, who have seen more than their fair share of angry white people over their respective lifetimes. If I can’t just let go of it, I at least need to challenge it either in writing or in a brief exchange that ends as soon as I can determine how rapidly it is approaching nowhere. But when I see the sheer enormity of time and energy wasted by white people fixating on whether or not they should have the “right” to dread their hair, I am catapulted across my threshold of tolerance, and I flip my fucking gourd.

I bet you’re wondering why I would get so angry. Well, get yourself a mug of humble, sit the fuck down, and read on.

First of all, a lot of people have racist ideas, and this gives me virtually limitless reasons to get pissed off. One such racist idea is that Black people are functionally inseparable from Rastas who dread their hair*, and so therefore it’s “racist” for a white person to dread theirs**.

* If you’re a white person who doesn’t think they actually believe this tripe, before you start crying about it, we both know there are white people who do, so shut your fucking lacrimal glands.
** If you’re a white person who believes this tripe, that means that whether you think you are or not, you are one of the white people who is described in the above footnote. You’ve got much bigger problems in your head than whether or not some other white person has put dreads on theirs.

Well I’ve got news for anyone who actually thinks this way: you’re fucking wrong. Everything you currently think about Black people and their relationship to their hair and to the Rastafari movement is fucking wrong. Everything you think about Rastas is fucking wrong, too. In fact, just do us all a favour and never speak on any of these subjects again until you’ve done a lot of fucking homework.

In the mean time, let me get you started on that homework. What’s “racist” about white people wearing dreads is not the fact that a white person’s hair is dreaded, but when observers condemn them for allegedly “trying to be a Black person”. When was the last time any of these asshats stopped to ask themselves what bearing their racism towards Black people should have on how a white person styles their fucking hair? When was the last time they stopped to ask themselves why they think of a Rasta with dreaded hair as the central iconic representation of all Black people? And when was the last time they stopped to ask themselves why they think they have a right, as white people, to police the racial demographics of the Rasta movement—from which they simultaneously forbid themselves from being involved because they are “too white” to enter or engage in a meaningful and respectful capacity?

Believe me. I know who I’m talking about because no matter how many beautiful words they can assemble to decry racism, they are always conspicuously absent when it comes time to put their money where their mouth is—which is virtually any time there’s a pressing need for real ally shit to get done; not merely postulating about the social injustices faced by communities of colour while they hang out with their white friends sipping “vegan” coffee produced with wage slavery on stolen South American lands. I know this not only because I divorced myself entirely from these social circles when I could see what a wankfest this intellectual circle-jerking was; but also because I listen to on-the-ground grassroots activists of colour, who are more often than not left standing alone holding the bag by those very same white people — who have reduced the daily struggles of racially marginalized people into a social currency among their white friends.

Secondly, a lot of people have a lot of racist ideas that don’t seem to be racist, at least unless more than a moment’s superficial thought is given, and this gives me even more fodder for perpetual fury. One such racist-but-not-immediately-racist idea is that any white person wearing dreadlocks is automatically a racist minstrel for doing so.

There’s a world of fucking difference between a white person wearing dreads of their own natural hair and a white person wearing blackface and a Halloween wig made to give the appearance of a ganja-smoking Black Rasta caricature. But again, the leap from “white person wearing dreads” to “racist minstrel wearing dreads” is simple, and it’s in that simplicity that this thought process reveals its racist foundations—the idea that Black people as a whole are functionally inseparable from the iconic dreadlocks of the Rastafari movement. In other words, this whole very simple thought process (white person + dreads = minstrelry) requires a categorical reduction of all Black people to just their unique hair type (Black person = Black hair), which is then further reduced to just one acceptable format (Black hair = dreads), positively ripe for acknowledgement and white rainbow warrior validation. If only that were sought after by anyone ever.

I guess the subject of Black hair wasn’t simple enough for us white folks to deal with — not that us white folks have ever done a goddamned thing in all of history to simplify the discourse or anything — so we just had to go ahead and start outright ignoring every iconic Black hairstyle but dreads to make it easier on ourselves. Nothing racist about that, right? And apparently, it’s more important to include over-simplified input from white people on Black people’s hair grooming than it is to allow Black people the inherent self-determination to allow in this discourse a logical diversity of ways actual Black people wear their hair every day (i.e., any goddamned way they please without solicitation for the constant permission and approval of white people).

It could only be white people who do these mental gymnastics for all it achieves (spoiler: a lot of wheels were spun but yielded neither yarn to clothe each other nor grains to nourish one another). People of colour simply don’t have the time or energy for it; often because they are already too busy dodging all the ways white people marginalize them and/or invade their personal space when their hair looks too “ethnic” — such as if a Black woman wears her hair in a fro, or an indigenous person wears their hair in a long braid.

This seems like an optimal time for a third point: only white people have the time and energy to waste, constantly seeking external validation from people of colour for wanting to look as white as possible, no matter how they ultimately decide to style their hair.

There actually exists an entire hair industry for people of colour who aspire to look more like white people (or, less like their own naturally beautiful black or brown selves); and while many people of colour could benefit from more white people getting involved in engaging that issue, only individual white people benefit from the exhausting and repetitive education process many people of colour voluntarily engage in whenever a solitary white person openly solicits for input on whether or not it’s “racist” of them to wear dreads made of their own hair—which ultimately generates an entire micro-industry fixated on white beauty, complete with all the above racisms built right in or your money back guaranteed. I guess somehow we figured we don’t get enough of the domination of white beauty from the existing white supremacist cosmetics industry, so we have to invent new ways of fabricating a fix for it.

Or perhaps, as white people, we just feel especially accomplished whenever we can generate opportunities for people of colour to stop paying attention—however momentarily—to shit that actually matters, so we apply our efforts to freeing them up to hold our hands and coddle us while we solicit their counselling through a moral crisis we’ve created ourselves but can’t handle on our own. What better crisis than the old “is this racist?” It’s a perfect diversion from the harsh reality that we’re really just too insecure in our own identities as white people to define and embrace our own beauty, to the point that a momentary glance of disapproval (perceived or actual) from a brown-skinned person causes us to seek out some racially charged moral crisis to resolve in order to make ourselves feel better afterward. It could never be that perhaps that scowl was inspired by a bad day, since people of colour are fucking perfect, right?

No… Instead of admitting what we white folk are really up to, we must constantly seek out external validation from people of colour for wanting to look like whoever it is we think we really are. That is to say, we want validation to want to be visibly distinguished from people of colour, because we wouldn’t want to have to face and thus understand the kinds of racial microaggressions they’ve dealt with all their lives, or to embody resistance to racism running in two directions at the same time when we’re challenged for being “wannabes” simply for taking pride in our dreads (which might actually push the bounds of the status quo to the point that Black people’s hair becomes just that much less political some day). No… That might actually require us to change something in our personal lives or expand and shift our perspectives and narratives about racism to something more meaningful and constructive.

What a perfect segue into my next point. Another common avenue to get people of colour to drop everything and pander to the needs of white people is the question “is this cultural appropriation?” And though it sounds more enlightened, it is still founded on all of the same racisms.

I addressed how much this empty question in relation to white people wearing dreads pisses me off last year, and you can read it here. Today, I found an article written by a white woman who had dreads put in her hair by a Real Black Person in Ghana, and then had a moral crisis over it some time later and collected insight from several people of colour before having another white person shave them off for her when she concluded that the reason she got them done was rooted in cultural appropriation (P.S. I can’t believe you actually call it “Rastafarianism” — look it up). It’s great for her that she had the clarity of insight into herself, that she was able to determine that she couldn’t bear the guilt of being appraised as “trying to be Black” (there is a prominent sense from her own words that this played a part in her spurious motivations for getting dreads in the first place), and to act appropriately by shaving her hair off as a way to relieve the guilt and anxiety.

For this person, it was an act of cultural appropriation. It was a racist knee-jerk bullshit behaviour, and she corrected it as she saw fit to do so. What she fails to acknowledge at all is that if she was Asian or South Asian or Latina or Native American, that would not have changed her relationship to what she had done. Not one iota. There’s also a Grand Canyon between her individual experience and wholesale “white people wearing dreads is racist/cultural appropriation!” Maybe if she had nearly as much insight into the racist lines of thought crossing through her brain as she had into her reasons for getting dreads in Ghana, she wouldn’t have had to shave her head to relieve her guilt complex, and could be writing about that instead of avoiding further work by pretending that she can pick which people of colour have voices worth listening to or sharing; all while promoting her own voice on issues she should be leaving people of colour to speak out against.

And that brings me to my final point: no matter what the issue, with the notable exception of the overly simplistic statement that “racism is bad, mmmk,” people of colour will not be able to reach consensus and it is high fucking time white people learned to accept that and deal with it.

There always seems to be a white rainbow warrior thumping his fist on his pasty hairless chest, proclaiming in capslock and threats of lateral violence that such-and-such person of colour said that white people wearing dreads is racist ass shit or cultural appropriation. It might be a personal acquaintance he likes to flatter himself by thinking of as a close friend. It might very well be an actual close friend in some rare instance. Most of the time it’s some person who claims to be Black from a IRC chat room or someone of colour who published a blog somewhere online about it. Whoever it is, this person is not a spokesperson for all people of colour or for all people of their race/ethnicity. Furthermore, even if such a spokesperson existed (they don’t, trust me), diversity of opinion prevents consensus — and believe me, there will always be diversity of opinion here.

Some people of colour couldn’t give a shit about white people wearing dreads. Some will be thrilled to see a white person wearing a beautiful head of dreads and actually taking good care of them rather than neglecting them until they become an amorphous mat of tangled hair. Some will be offended. That alone should tell you something about the nature of what’s going on there. And conversely, there will be the same diversity of opinion among white people. There’s your second clue. The same thing goes for white people like me wearing moccasins, even though I wear them with pride because I learned how to make them myself from a native elder (who also gave me a lot of powerful teachings about what I’m doing when I engage in that work, and how to do it in a respectful way). There’s your third clue.

The clues are telling us all something… If you can stop your crying over the blond dreads on the floor and bruised white feelings for long enough to listen real closely, the message is that you’re a racist asshat if you think dreadlocks and skin colour are the litmus tests for either racism or cultural appropriation.

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