When I was about twenty one I did something I'd never done before. I got my hair cut. I don't mean to suggest that I'd never had my hair cut before. But this time I went further. This time I got it really cut. I bought clippers and gave myself a size two - about a millimetre away from skinhead.
Now, I should make it clear that I wasn't - and very definitely still am not - a skinhead. Not in the political sense of the word. David Beckham was sporting the look at the time; a certain breed of cultured middle aged male I'd spot around London gave the look a bohemian air. I have to admit I probably didn't make a particularly brilliant job of it (I had to ask my student flatmates to finish the back of my head), but I thought it might give me an arty, vaguely Buddhist feel. I certainly wasn't expecting the reaction I got.
"Christ, have you joined the BNP or something?"
My grandfather's startled response wasn't the only one. People looked at me different on the street. I wore baggy jeans to compensate, but the effect was clear: I'd gone for Yoga chic and ended up with the EDL.
It was then that I realised fashion is never just neutral. It always means something to somebody, somewhere. Take the video that recently went viral, the one featuring a black person telling a white person that they find their dreadlocks offensive. Whatever the ins and outs of the exchange itself - and confronting someone on a staircase is probably not the best way to go about this - it does raise an interesting discussion: do white people have the right to grow a hairstyle popularly associated with Rastafarian culture?
I should come out and say first of all I've never had dreads, nor wanted them. I'm white and I've always loved reggae, but never wanted to symbolise that love with my head. And perhaps I don't have any right to speak on this subject given my race. But then I think this question goes far beyond me. In fact it goes far beyond any single person, really. It goes to the heart of what culture is - whether a look or style can really "belong" to a certain group.
Most people would say that's a dangerous slippery slope to go down - after all, where do you stop? And isn't all culture the product of creative clashes? The free speech brigade - disproportionately overrepresented by white men - will no doubt do their usual huffing and puffing, making the usual wild proclamations about the "banning" of behaviour (nobody's banned anything). No doubt there are people harrumphing this minute that "it's illegal for white people to get dreadlocks now". (It isn't). Legal intervention in fashion would be a terrible thing - not least because I think my own fashion crimes would have landed me with a twenty year sentence by now - but nevertheless, this is a debate worth having. Should white people take their scissors to the dreaded white dreads?
When I put this question out to social media I got a predictable spread of comments. All cultures are formed by intercultural influence; this is a slippery slope; ban this and what next? None of these points are wrong. But here's what I think. I think it seems extreme, maybe, to ban hairstyles on the basis of skin colour. But I also think majority populations of all stripes - in this case we're talking about white people - should learn to think a little bit more about the symbolism of what they say and do.
As a white straight male, I'd say the last five years of my life has been a quiet voyage of discovery, as I've attempted to think very, very hard - more than I've ever thought before - about exactly why people might be offended if I use a certain word or joke about a certain topic. I guess you could call it a slow realization of my privilege. And here's the thing about privilege: it can be defined negatively as well as positively. So someone like me needs to think not so much in terms of what I can do (I'm no more powerful than anybody else) but in terms of what I'm prevented from doing.
My life isn't great by any stretch, but I'll never really know what it's like to fear serious sexual assault walking home. Or to fear getting my head kicked in for daring to walk out of a gay club. Or, indeed, to be black and face a bunch of white police on the streets of contemporary America.
So here's what I feel. Legal intervention in matters of personal style would be wrong. But culture, not the law, is the final determinant here. Look at blackface, one of the worst kinds of appropriation to have survived into this century. If you raised a problem about, say, a college fraternity blacking up for a party a few decades ago you'd have been shrugged off as PC-gone-crazy. Now, save for a few assholes intent on upsetting as many people as possible, blackface is generally just not done. The government didn't have to make it illegal; changing social norms effectively moved things on. The same thing's happening to Native American head-dress. Dreads on white people simply may well become "not cool" in the same way.
And here's the thing. So what?
If a new generation of white kids growing up just mostly elect not to grow dreads, has society really lost anything? The older generation will presumably keep them (now there's a weird image: geriatric white Rastas in old peoples' homes) but they'll gradually be replaced as new generations rise - the same life cycle of change that drives all culture. One could argue that this is a blow for "free expression" - but the truth is that free expression has always had to exist within the bounds of contemporary acceptability, as anyone from atheist poets in the nineteenth century to left-wing film-makers in 1950s Hollywood discovered.
I don't think this is an easy subject. It's true that culture can never really be "owned" by one group (I argue elsewhere in these pages that the word "slave" doesn't only refer to historical African-Americans, and banning yoga classes simply because they're run by a white person seems to be on the extreme side). But privilege comes with responsibilities, and white privilege is no different. If you know something's going to make some people uncomfortable, why do it? I can stand up at an open-mic night and make jokes about rape if I want to - that's my legal right. But I don't want to, because in general making jokes about rape is a shitty thing to do, calculated to make half your audience uncomfortable for the sake of it. (Would you crack bereavement jokes to your friend after their mother died? Of course not).
We live in a democracy, and we should all be proud of that. But being a democratic citizen isn't just predicated around your right to do something; it's also about being mindful of the consequences of what you do. Free speech obsessives tend to imagine a free society as a kind of rugged wilderness dotted with Thoreau-like woodsmen, all undisturbed in their tranquil idyll. But that's a deeply romanticized picture. Actually society is much more like a cramped house share - everybody jostling to fit in, get along. Of course you want the right to play loud music in your room sometimes. But doesn't the next guy? What about when you want to sleep? Through such negotiations, by being mindful of those around you, do we hopefully evolve.
Suggested For You
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more