Twice in my life I have had the hairstyle known commonly as “dread locks.” The first time my friend Becca helped me form them, and they were DISGUSTING. The wax that I used to help hold them insulated the hair, and they were greasy, and I am pretty sure they smelled of mildew. The second set was much better. I simply stopped washing my hair and helped form the natural tangles into locks, rolled them, and sometimes put stupid stuff like shells and beads into them. I have to admit . . . I think the second set looked pretty good. I actually had plans to let them grow for a very long time so that I could be one of those hip white folks with nice “dreads” that can look oh-so-sexy. Then my friend Brian, a pretty awesome, anti-racist white dude, got me thinking. He mentioned once that white people having “dread locks” might be kind of racist and that I should look into it. So I did . . .
I came across a pamphlet and some other readings that explained how incredibly problematic it can be for white people to wear their hair in this particular style (as well as in “mohawks”). Basically, here’s the deal. “Dread locks” refer to a style of hair from the Afro-Caribbean tradition that is a direct form of resistance by black people to white supremacy and white standards of beauty. The term “dread locks” actually refers to how black folks in Caribbean nations were often referred to by the white slave owners as the “dread people” because they were seen as dreaded and lowly. The act of “locking” one’s hair was in resistance to white standards of beauty and white oppression that told black people of the Caribbean that they were not beautiful and that they needed to wear their hair a certain way.
So why is it problematic for white people to wear their hair as “dread locks?” Well, to understand this, it is important that we understand the concept of cultural appropriation. I like the definition for appropriation that the pamphlet linked above uses. It defines appropriation as, “The act of making use of without any authority or right.” The basic idea of cultural appropriation is when a group (usually the dominant group in society, though not always) takes aspects of another person’s culture without permission and adopts it as part of its own, often without recognition to the roots and history of the cultural tradition in question.
White people are pro at cultural appropriation . . . You see, part of the problem with whiteness, the social construction of the white race in our society, is that it doesn’t just hurt people of color. Tim Wise describes it well in his book White Like Me, and I shall paraphrase, when he basically says that in order to become white, people of Irish or Jewish or Italian or Czech (the list goes on and on) heritage who have light skin have to give up their culture in order to become white. To be white in the United States is essentially to be without ties and roots to one’s culture of origin. After all, had the Irish not given up those ties, it is entirely possible that they would still be seen as less than white and thus deserving of a backseat on this societal bus.
Thus, we white folks have only nominal connection to our culture . . . maybe we eat the foods or occasionally celebrate a festival, but we are now culturally without a culture. We are culturally white. So . . . we steal other people’s culture.
“I’m not racist. My best friend is black.”
"I'm clearly not a sexist. My girlfriend always feels empowered."
“My housemate is Jewish, so there’s no way I could be anti-Semitic.”
“My brother’s gay. I have no problem with gay people.”
Don’t get caught in this trap! The list goes on and on. I have heard it a thousand times, and unfortunately, at different points in my life, I have said it myself. The “I’m not (insert ‘ism). My friend is (a member of the group in question)” excuse for something problematic we may have just said or done or stood by and ignored.
In “The Wall”, I talk a lot about introspection and relationships being the keys to overcoming one’s personal prejudice and bigotry in order to build a more hate-free and just world. I rarely use the word relationships, though, without prefacing it with the term “accountable.” I do so because so often, people try to use their interpersonal relationships to shield themselves from the kind of honest introspection that must accompany their relationships across difference. If we cannot look inside of ourselves at our own prejudices because we think our relationships prohibit us from being prejudiced or bigoted, we are seriously misguided.
I, for one, have a number of friends of color. I know, though, that my friendships with people of color are hindered, though, by my own innate prejudices around race and ethnicity. I have friends from a number of religions, but that does not mean that I am free of religious prejudice. I have friends who are gay, straight, and everything in between, and I even find it difficult to identify as straight. However, I still have my struggles with homophobia and heterosexism. Only through really understanding my prejudices (FIRST) and building more accountable relationships across difference can I hope to overcome these sad realities. What do accountable relationships look like, though?
In talking so often about relationships, I realized that it is important for me to clarify the difference between an accountable relationship and a tokenizing relationship. After all, if my work ever encourages people to tokenize those around them, my point is not only missed, but my work may be doing more harm than good.
In a recent post, I identified myself as a straight male. After reading the post, someone who knows me well remarked, “I’m really surprised that you said you’re straight! I thought you didn’t identify as straight?” The discussion that ensued was an awesome look at sexual identity, particularly with regards to how men choose to identify in our very heterosexist culture. It really got me thinking about a lot of things that I hadn’t mulled over in a while, so I thought I would share some of my thoughts here.
It is interesting . . . While in my personal life, I don’t identify as straight, I almost always identify as straight in my work. I think that my main reason for doing so is the very subject of this blog: it is often a pretty complicated discussion to explain how I identify sexually, and I am not always ready and willing to jump into that discussion in the middle of a workshop or in a debrief afterward. In my recent blog post, it was simply easier to say, “as a straight male . . . ” than to say, “as a man who chooses not to identify within a restrictive dichotomy of sexuality that I don’t feel describes the reality of my sexual orientation . . .”
After all, for all intents and purposes, I am “straight” as that term has been constructed by our society. I am more likely to be attracted to women, and throughout my general relationship experience, I have dated women. However, I have never felt like the term “straight” described how I feel. Am I attracted to men? Yes! I just am not attracted to that many men. In fact, I am pretty darn picky with the men to whom I am attracted. I just feel like the traditional understanding of sexuality as broken into two distinct categories, “straight” and “gay” with a middle ground called “bisexual” that implies an equal attraction, doesn’t do justice to the complexity of human sexuality!
Over the past few weeks, I have been seeing more and more stories pop up on the news that have saddened me. From New York to New Jersey to Tennessee to Wisconsin to California and elsewhere, Muslim-American communities are looking to build Mosques where they can share in prayer and community of faith as their Christian-American, Jewish-American, Baha’i-American, Hindu-American (though that may be debatable), Buddhist-American, Sikh-American, Pagan-American, and even Satanist-American brothers and sisters have been able to do since the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution first proclaimed that the “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ”
Now I am in no way saddened by the desire of our Muslim brothers and sisters to build places of worship. Instead, I am saddened by the response of non-Muslim community members to their proposed plans:
A few weeks ago, I was hanging out with my good friend Dan in Boulder. Among other wonderful things that we talked about that night, we had a challenging and important conversation about the ways we look at women. Dan posed me the tough question of where the line is drawn between appreciating beauty and objectifying women.
What is beautiful? What is healthy?
We discussed this dilemma for quite a while. It is tough. As a straight male, I am attracted to a wide variety of women, and I like to think that I can appreciate a wide range of beauties. I like to think that I can see a range of body types and see beauty in them all in different ways, appreciating the human form without over-sexualizing and objectifying the women whom I am appreciating.
However, both Dan and I recognized a struggle that we face as straight men who are trying to build a more positive masculinity and male sexuality. We want to simply recognize beauty in the women around us, but too often we realized that it goes far beyond that. The euphemism I use when I speak describes it well: Too often my eyes go down. I stare at women’s bodies with an uncomfortable lust that holds them to a standard of beauty that, frankly, does not exist.