There are some things that I can’t even believe are a debate; the answer just seems so obvious or the arguments so absurd. I find this happens a lot in sports (you mean to tell me that Barry Bonds doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame when many other admitted cheaters and men of questionable character are in with a fraction of his credentials?) and politics (by all means, let’s continue to be the world’s leaders in denying climate change when the overwhelming scientific consensus points it to being a real, man-made problem) but not so much in social and cultural views.
I recognize that people’s opinions on these matters are usually a result of their own experiences, and not being able to see what they’ve seen and truly empathize with them, I can’t usually fault them for coming from a certain direction. But then we get to issues like the confrontation over a man’s dreadlocks at San Francisco State University, captured on a video that went viral a couple weeks ago, and once more I find myself baffled.
For those of you who haven’t seen the video, it consists of a black woman accosting a white man with dreadlocks, claiming that he shouldn’t be allowed to wear the hairstyle since it’s not representative of his culture (the implication being that they are representative of “her culture,” whatever that is supposed to mean).
The dispute, at least the bit captured on camera, is short, with the man eventually taking himself out of the conversation after being mocked and manhandled by the woman. Now to me, this seems like a problem that should have an obvious resolution: the man, Cory Goldstein, is in the right for being allowed to wear his hair however he so chooses, while the unidentified woman is in the wrong for attempting to encroach on somebody else’s freedom. Yet somehow this isn’t the unanimous opinion.
Legitimate cultural appropriation is a real thing. It is indeed possible for a group to hijack a symbol or practice from another culture and distort or commercialize its meaning, and this should be avoided out of the sensitivity and common courtesy that is owed every person. For instance, knowing that most Indian people do not appreciate non-Indians wearing the Bindi — the uniquely Indian forehead accessory with religious significance in Hinduism — the decent response is not to wear them as a fashion statement.
But this certainly shouldn’t be foisted on someone against their will, not only because of the importance of maintaining freedom of expression but also because of the fluid nature of cultures, which are constantly evolving and taking on aspects of societies that existed before or concurrently with them. In addition, the reason I used the qualifier “legitimate” above is that cultural appropriation is too often used as a blanket term for every instance in which an element of one culture is borrowed by another, which often happens organically.
By taking this definition to its logical conclusion, everything in the culture of the United States would technically be cultural appropriation, since the United States of America didn’t exist until the late 1700s, and the other cultures that our country was born from (English, British, German, various African nations) existed before it. Yet I don’t hear any ardent social justice warriors offering such an absurd opinion.
So what are dreadlocks, legitimate or faux-cultural appropriation? Well, that question begins with what culture is supposedly being appropriated by the white guy when he’s wearing them. Dreadlocks have been worn as a fashion statement and a sacred practice by several cultures over the millennia, including by Hindus in India, Israelites, Egyptians and Rastafari in the Caribbean.
For the purposes of my argument and from what most opinions in the media are pointing towards, I will assume that the woman in the video is claiming African-American culture, for which dreadlocks only became a popular hairstyle in the late 20th century. Now if this is the case, how can she possibly claim to have a monopoly over the wearing of dreadlocks when it only became a part of her culture in the last 50 odd years?
It may be argued that the cultures who have worn dreadlocks in the past are those that would not be identified as “white” today, but cultures are not split into “white” and “non-white.” Black people in America today are not more culturally similar to Ancient Egyptians (even that is a blanket term) than they are to their white neighbors. And since those aforementioned non-white cultures are all dissimilar to each other, and the argument trying to be made is that some cultures are allowed to wear dreads while others aren’t, which is in the right? Are the Indians who wear dreadlocks wrong for wearing them for different reasons than the Israelites, who wore them for different reasons than Jamaicans, who wear them for different reasons than the African-Americans? Of course not.
In the video, Goldstein brings this up, asking the woman if she is Egyptian, to which her only rebuttal is “are you Egyptian?” as if that actually addresses his argument. She misses the ultimate point in that it doesn’t matter what his culture is, all that matter is that he wants to wear his hair in a particular way. It’s true that the dreadlocks mean something different to him than they do to people of other cultures, but there is nothing that makes his interpretation any less valid. He wears them because he likes the way they look and perhaps because they mean something to him on a personal level. Who is to say they don’t? Besides, even if there is no deeper significance, he is free to do what he wants with his own appearance. If that offends you, too bad. Nobody is under any obligation to make sure their fashion statements don’t offend anybody.