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.
White use of Hip Hop music, culture, and language
It is the epitome of white privilege to not have to think about the historical or cultural significance of those things we want as our own. We simply take them. There are countless examples throughout history, and I was saddened to see an example on such a large scale on Saturday, August 28, 2010: Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, 47 years after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in that very location. It is the epitome of white privilege to be confronted with the fact that you have planned your conservative rally on the anniversary and in the same location as Dr. King’s speech and to say, “I didn’t know” but to consider it “providence.” When prominent black leaders question this decision, you scoff at them.
Is Glenn Beck racist for hosting his rally on that day in that location? No . . . (though some of the other things he says make me wonder). However, what is racist is to simply shrug off the “coincidence” and call it “providence, ” thus appropriating the significance of the date and location for you and your cause. It is counter-productive to speculate as to whether or not “Dr. King would be so proud” of those hosting the rally, and it is counter productive to claim that the rally is in no way racist because Dr. King’s neice, Alveda King, or other conservative black leaders spoke at the rally. The point is that Beck’s attitude and decision to host the rally parades his white privilege. The fact that all throughout the rally, people (and in most of the video I have seen, white people) were invoking Dr. King and who they think he was and what they think he stood for only proves the point. This rally, which is divorced from Dr. King’s message of racial justice, was invoking the words, the message, even the actual event that means so much to so many people of color in this country in a deliberate act of cultural appropriation.
Thus, while the rally itself may not have been racist, the very act of holding the rally in the manner and location in which it was held reeks of white privilege and, by extension, racism. Just as I, at first, reacted so defensively to charges that my hair style stood for anything more than my own self expression, Beck, Palin, and the others at the rally insist . . . this rally is about nothing more than restoring honor to this country (read subtext: which has been dishonored by our socialist, foreign-born, Muslim, liberation theologist, white-people-hating, president and his followers, and we need to restore our country to what our founding fathers intended, founding fathers who were all white men, many of whom owned slaves and who founded this country as a male-and-white-supremacist aristocracy). Further, the rally represents a wider climate of fear that white people are displaying, whereby whites are afraid that before long, they will no longer be those in power, that they will no longer be the norm, that they no longer will set the cultural mores and traditions. Frankly, they “want their country back.”
Hey Glenn . . . your privilege is showing.