Fear of a Black Hairstyle - Cultural Appropriation? No Thanks

07/04/2016 12:08 BST | Updated 08/04/2017 10:12 BST

Cultural appropriation is in the news.

At the end of March, a video went viral which featured a black women haranguing a white man over his dreadlocks. This week, people were unhappy that Justin Bieber got dreadlocks too.

In the Huffington Post, Young Voices blogger Neha Shah explained the argument:

As free as people should be to don whatever hair and clothing makes them feel best yoabout themselves, using someone else's cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is irrefutably an exercise in privilege.

I get the concept: just because you can do something, it doesn't mean you should. But the privilege we have is to choose how we want to dress. Many people do not have that choice, and asking us to be sensitive about the oppression of others is laudable. However the demand that we should moderate our behaviour because others are not able to moderate their behaviour seems odd. Shouldn't we be trying to liberate, rather than oppress?

Shah gives a useful list of appropriations that have been criticised:

current fashion trends of Native American headdresses, tattoos of Polynesian tribal iconography, Indian bindis, and even Twerking... and... Fancy Dress.

She gives a detailed account of why she thinks cultural appropriation is an issue, and why white individuals should take racism, power structures, and colonial history into account in their everyday lives:

If you're going to use something from someone else's culture, do it with respect and a sense of humility (and ideally, with permission.) It is in no one's interests to repurpose something with religious or cultural significance for aesthetic use without a strong awareness of the object's origins.

Here we run into some problems.


Often it is unclear where a cultural object comes from. Dreadlocks go back to pre-history. They are most commonly associated now with the Rastafarian Movement, but clearly that movement does not have a monopoly on dreadlocks.

Who should we ask for permission? If we are talking about direct claims for authenticity -- say "official Rastafarian Movement Dreadlocks", then we can speak to leaders within that movement... But if we are saying "rasta dreads hat", then that's different. That's not claiming authenticity at all.

The female student in the San Francisco State University incident video did not have a strong awareness of the origins of dreadlocks. She was claiming them solely for people from her cultural background, which is factually incorrect. She was not acting with humility.

Shah provides a concise summary of the arguments used to condemn Cultural Appropriation:

If your costume is racially or ethnically or culturally based, the chances are that it's racist... It is absolutely unacceptable to just borrow someone's race or culture for the day... it is NOT OKAY to laugh at someone else's life.

But there is no law enforcing political correctness in most countries. Some organisations have rules that seek to enforce "politically correct" policies, but these are subject to wider legal issues relating to freedom of expression. In the USA there is the First Amendment to the Constitution. In Europe, there is Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Specifically, it is ok to laugh at other people's lives - if that is even what people are doing. You can choose not to. You cannot prevent other people doing so.

Asking people as a matter of courtesy to be sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation is one thing. Laying this request out as a demand that people conform with unchallengeable rules of behaviour is a quite another.

Where people do not comply, a person breaking this non-legal and poorly defined rule can find themselves labelled as "problematic" and even "racist".

Even defending the rights of others not to comply with politically correct injunctions can be enough for the term "racist" to be applied to them .

There are those in society who will happily conform to requests from social justice advocates regarding cultural appropriation... But not everyone will, and their reasons for doing so are many and varied.

Some will be deliberately out to offend. Some will not agree that this is a problem even if they adamantly consider they are not racist and do not wish to offend. Not every black person, or every Rastafarian, will see this as an issue. Some black people and political correctness advocates will even see this controversy as unhelpful and self-defeating for the PC movement.

Declaring people "racist" simply because they will not conform to arbitrary requirements of political correctness harms can harm the cause of equality and diversity, because it makes its advocates look intolerant and dictatorial.

Shah's final request is this:

Above all, remember that you are wearing someone else's life. Treat it with the same respect that you would treat your own.

I disagree. You are not wearing someone else's life. You are wearing your own life. You should treat other people with respect, but that does not mean than they get to tell you what to do with your life any more than you get to tell them what to do with theirs.

Asking people to consider the lives and cultures of other people is reasonable. If you choose not to respect other people, you may, under the circumstances, be being a jerk.

But in the same way, insisting that other people follow your precepts as to how they should behave, can also be being a jerk.

The negative effects of racism and oppression are many, and the damage caused insidious and wide-ranging. There is a clear need for education and consciousness raising. But let's not trivialise this process by policing how others choose to look.

Let's cut each other some slack.

Agree or disagree? Let me know what you think!

Cartoon by Chris Manno, used with permission.