At some point, we have to come clean about the toxic ways that whiteness works to perpetually erase, pacify, and root out blackness in the United States. And we have to be honest that cultural appropriation is a deeper ideological commitment than just a desire to emulate hairstyles, vernacular, food, and clothing.
A video emerged this week showing a confrontation between a Black woman and a White male who was wearing dreadlocks or locs. In the video, the young woman is expressing concern that his hairstyle is a case of cultural appropriation. While the confrontation itself has been the focus of many mainstream stories covering the incident, what is more concerning about the footage is the White male’s indignance in asserting his God-given right to not only wear the hairstyle but to uproot the Black woman from her own cultural identity in the process. In essence, his arsenal of witty responses to deflect and undermine the (justifiable) concerns from the Black woman confronting him is precisely why she was approaching him in the first place.
The video, which took place at San Francisco State University, was posted to YouTube and has since gone viral. In the video, the Black woman is heard explaining to the White male that he is appropriating her culture. She then asks him, “do you know what locs mean?” To which he answers, “Do you know it was in Egyptian culture? Are you Egyptian? Nah breh, you’re not.” What’s actually funny is that the young woman’s companion then asks the White male, “Are you Egyptian?” To which he answers, “No.” When she asks him the same question, he says, “No, that doesn’t matter.”
When the young man attempts to leave, the confrontation gets more intense but it is hardly the “assault” folks have framed it to be. Meanwhile, a student is filming the incident and says he is doing it for “everyone’s safety.”
What immediately struck me about the video was that the White male’s body language was particularly “down” when he responded to the Black woman. He spoke to her in a diction and dialect which suggested that he was poking fun at African American Vernacular English (AAVE). In doing that, he was showing that he actually doesn’t respect the culture he believes he can emulate simply by leaving his hair raggedy and uncombed.
The video really wasn’t as concerning as some people have suggested when you consider the ways that Black people’s bodies are violated in public spaces every single day. Black women’s hair is patted down, excavated, and disturbed at airports for “safety.” Black folks with locs are barred from certain jobs and opportunities because locs are seen as unkempt or dirty. Overall, this video just shows a privileged White kid getting questioned about his odious mimicry of dreads. People only really care because he’s White.
The young man later gave an interview to the Golden Gate Express. In it, the young man, identified as Cory Goldstein (22), claims that the altercation was unjustified because, he “didn’t feel the need to explain [him]self. My hair, my rules, my body.”
He continues to work his hardest to distance the young woman from the very culture she was attempting to defend. He says, “It’s not even a part of the colored community’s culture.” According to him, Irish (not a culture), Vikings (also not a culture), and Victorians (still no, not a culture and probably a lie) wore dreadlocks. He then says, “when people wear Native American headdresses, I feel like that is cultural appropriation because that is something that solely is within their culture. That they use for [empowerment]. Only people of high standing within that community with high standing can have headdresses. That would be cultural appropriation.” You know, because all Native Americans wear headdresses and they have one single community…and he gets to decide what appropriation is…not the people whose culture’s are being appropriated.
In an attempt to whitesplain what locs are, he says, “Hair tangles naturally.” The interviewer then says “is that something that naturally happen to your hair?” To which he replies, “No.” But, because he is White, he gets all the things apparently.
When asked about his position of privilege and why he has taken a part of another culture to adorn himself, he has another winning response.
“It doesn’t symbolize anything for her. I bet you, if you asked her directly, what dreadlocks mean, she probably wouldn’t know…it’s not something that is common within African-American culture. Like, it is not something across the board that you will see that they believe in, that they cherish. It’s something that they wear on their head.” To understand why this is both wrong and bigoted, look at Evette Dionne’s coverage of this issue at The Revelist.
If this isn’t a case study in white privilege I don’t know what is. This young man would rather use ancient cultures (of whom we have no way of knowing if they ever had “tangled hair”) to justify his appropriation of living, breathing people whose actual cultures he is hijacking right now. Not only that, he claims to know what Black people do and do not know about themselves. Apparently, Black folks just wear locs on our heads as a hairstyle. He is doing something different and more sacred because research and stuff.
For this young man, who is sorely in need of more books, this “hairstyle” is about his right as a White man to take whatever he wants from whomever he wants. That he identifies the “colored community” as an actual thing is evidence that the conception of cultural appreciation is lost on him. But, even deeper than that, his inability to see this Black woman’s concerns as valid and informed by a particular cultural experience in the United States is precisely the definition of White privilege. His propensity to cherry-pick history, bending reality to fit his whims suggests that whiteness will go to any lengths to insulate and reproduce itself even if that means trying to convince Black people their culture isn’t even their’s to protect.
Frankly, this video makes me sick to my stomach. It is the kind of combination of toxic masculinity and toxic whiteness that just make you feel as if our work here will never be done. And maybe it won’t, but I’m glad this young woman tried.