I wasn't surprised by the US dreadlocks row. It's another example of cultural appropriation and white entitlement

White men have worn dreadlocks in the past. But this isn't 11th Century Scandinavia, it's modern day America, where the style is still tangled up in the black struggle against white supremacy

Wedaeli Chibelushi
Saturday 02 April 2016 13:05
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US student Corey Goldstein, who this week defended his decision to wear dreadlocks as a white man.
US student Corey Goldstein, who this week defended his decision to wear dreadlocks as a white man.

A video showing a black student accosting a white student over his dreadlocks has racked up more than two million views in two days. Shot at San Francisco University, it shows an unnamed black woman blocking the path of Corey Goldstein, who sports the controversial hairstyle. Referring to his dreads, she claims: “It’s my culture”. In a second video, Goldstein goes on to defend his choice of hairstyle, insisting that dreadlocks are “everywhere… it’s not something that is just part of the coloured community”.

Cory Goldstein comments on viral video

Goldstein is, of course, quite right - dreadlocks are not the sole preserve of black culture. The style has been traced back to Ancient India, Egypt and Greece. But the fact that dreads belong to many cultures doesn’t mean that Goldstein is automatically immune to the accusation that now surrounds him: that he is guilty of what is known as “cultural appropriation”. In fact, Goldstein is a shining example of its very definition: “a dominant culture [taking] elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group”.

In his defence, Goldstein stated that dreadlocks are “ingrained in so many cultures other than that. It’s in Egyptian culture; it’s in Viking culture – even in Victorian culture”. Vikings were white, yes, and there are claims that the Scandinavian seafarers rocked dreads too. But Goldstein doesn’t rock his dreads in 11th Century Scandinavia. He wears them in the US, where dreadlocks are still tangled in the black struggle against white supremacy.

In the 1950s, a time of intense racial segregation and discrimination, African Americans adopted dreadlocks. As fellow black folk, they acknowledged its potential to reject white dominance other political, cultural and economic issues. Jamaican Rastafaris, meanwhile, wore dreadlocks as a form of cultural resistance. They wanted to provoke society and rebel against an (often white) dominant culture.

As the black actress Amandla Stenberg says, “appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that they are partaking in”. By wearing dreadlocks without acknowledging their symbolic resistance, Goldstein reduces cultural power to a “cool” trend. As part of the oppressive culture, he emulates minority tradition while bypassing the discriminations that comes with it.

As for “Victorian culture”, I’m at a loss, but regardless of whether Benjamin Disraeli wore the locks or not, Goldstein’s defence preserves the power imbalance between white folk and people of colour.

“My hair, my rules, my body”, Goldstein asserts, displaying a deep sense of entitlement. Sure, it’s only hair, and it is his hair to style. But does he have the right to style it in a way that has a deep cultural meaning to minority cultures? The ability to style your hair for fashion’s sake is a luxury, not a right. If it is offending others, Goldstein should consider giving up that luxury.

Goldstein reveals no political or spiritual reason for wearing dreads, apart from his claim that he “loves and respects [African American] culture”. It is possible, however, to respect culture without taking from it; you can raise awareness of its oppression and educate yourself.

Such education may stop Goldstein from generalising. In his statement, he makes another interesting point. Dreads aren’t “something that all across the board [African Americans] believe in”, Goldstein states, and he’s right. There’s the mum with the weave who nags her son because she thinks his dreadlocks are disgusting. There’s the cornrowed teenager who believes that hair carries no meaning. But to go on to claim that black hair is just “something that they wear on their head” is ignorant in the extreme.

Does Goldstein really believe that no African Americans wear dreadlocks for spiritual or political reasons? None at all? A white man erasing these beliefs and meanings sounds a lot like what Azealia Banks termed “cultural smudging” to me. In an interview with Hot 97, Banks said that ‘cultural smudging’ tells black people “you don’t own shit, you don’t have shit, not even the shit you created for yourself”.

Goldstein’s expression of white entitlement affirms her gloomy message. He’s taken from a minority culture and defends his actions by the same justifications used time and time again. Rather than showing “love and respect” in his way, Goldstein ought to talk to some African Americans about what dreadlocks really mean to them.

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