Monday, 4 April 2016

I'm White with Dreadlocks

Everyone and his brother is having a go at Bonita Tindale for attacking some Bill-and-Ted type university student for his apparent appropriation of her culture. Cory Goldstein has messy matted hair which Bonita takes for dreadlocks. Bonita thinks dreadlocks belong to "her" culture, whatever culture that may be. (She hasn't got a Jamaican accent, I notice.) Her outrage would be more amusing if she had relaxed or otherwise straightened her hair, Beyoncé-style, but there's not evidence for it in the video, so I'll let that thought go.

Personally I hate dreadlocks because my hair loves nothing more than to matt itself into the nasty things. It has behaved this way since I was--I believe--six years old, which meant that my childhood involved the daily torment of painful hair-brushing. Imagine having embryonic dreads brushed out of your hair everyday. Fortunately, I am so used to hair-care hurting, I just get on with it.  As I tell every apologetic hairdresser, "I don't really feel it anymore."

There were very few (almost none) Afro-Canadians in my neighbourhood then, and I was surprised when I first discovered  in my teens at least some Afro-Canadians took me for mixed race. People have a lot of misconception about racial characteristics; for example, I had no clue that you could be my shade of pinkish-white and have red hair and be African-American. But there are people who seem to think that "white-people hair" necessarily means soft, straight (or wavy, or perfectly curling), naturally shining hair.  Many African-Americans resent the idea that to be beautiful means to have such hair, and so do I.

The last time I was harrassed for having non-conforming white-lady hair was at the local grocery store; school had led out and the bairns were buying candy. Although all my life long, adults have told me what wonderful hair I have, children have almost always told me the exact opposite. Little boys--although not so little that they aren't allowed to go out in packs without adult supervision--in particular take a special joy in informing me that I need a haircut.  This was  soon after I hadn't put my hair into multiple braids after washing, having felt mild paranoia at swing-dancing that a new girl, an African-American, was both staring at me and judging me for my appropriation of multi-braiding.  I once had a politically correct boyfriend who voiced his acute embarrassment when a hairdresser put my hair in dozens of neat cornrows, even though he knew perfectly well what my hair looked like in its natural state. (See photo.)

However, one thing I have learned from having non-standard white lady hair is how rotten people can be to women who don't have it, no matter what colour they are. I completely sympathize with black women who choose to relax, iron, straighten, add extensions and do whatever else to their hair to make it conform to the "shimmering curtain of hair" standard. I also admire and am grateful to the African-American Natural Hair Movement for intentionally subverting that standard.  I learned a lot just from its posts on Pinterest.

One of the things I learned is that there is no such thing as "black hair" and "white hair". There is just hair ranging from super-straight (1a) to Z-shaped zig-zags (4c). In photos, the models tend to be mixed-race or black from 3b on: I think mine can be categorized as 3c. Yes, I do think about this often, and I am not surprised black women think about this often, too. And, yes, people DO want to touch my hair. If black women complain that people ask to touch their hair, I believe them. And if people shoot spitballs or popcorn into their hair, it's not necessarily a racist attack. Then again, it could be. If white people attack or mock white people for not looking white enough, there could be a definite anti-black element to that. Call me crazy, but when people yell "AF-RO" at you, their motivations may be anti-African.

 Bonita Tindale's racially-motivated attack on Cory Goldstein was something else entirely, of course. It seems to have been a case of a young woman thinking she had the right to physically restrain a man so that he would have to listen to her complaints about his hair. Giving young Cory a lecture about his hair was rude--just as rude as little boys who yell "Hey, you need a haircut"--but within the bounds for freedom of speech. Bonita is free to say what she wants, short of such incitements to violence as "Hey, let's mess up all white boys wearing dreads". Cory is free to say, "Shut your yap, you crazy woman." We are all free to make fun of both Bonita and Cory although, really, as a Catholic I suppose I should say rather that we are free to attempt to reconcile Bonita and Cory by acknowledging the existence of real anti-black racism while pointing out that human hair, left uncombed, can turn into dreadlocks.

In fact, naturally-formed dreadlocks historically have been associated with POLES--at very least, Polish peasants. I feel a need to apologize to readers for the ghastly dreadlock/mess of hair in the photo exhibited by the wikipedia article on "plica polonica". It makes me feel rather ill, probably because this could so easily happen to me, and I know what it would smell like. I don't know what wikipedia means by "uncommon".  At any rate, in all the internet larks over Bonita and Cory, no-one has mentioned dreadlocks in connection with Central Europe, so after my own oft-repeated white person sob-story about naturally forming dreads, that's my contribution.

In case you are wondering, I have one nasty baby dreadlock at the moment, and it will take mucho conditioner and combing to get the dratted thing out.


  1. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. She probably learned about "cultural appropriation" in one of her classes, but didn't examine it in a critical and historical context.


  2. I am white, and I have 'soft, straight, shiny white girl hair' without trying (luck of the genetic draw.) Getting it to curl AT ALL, on the other hand, is a total cow.

    Am I supposed to feel offended that Beyoncé or whoever is trying to imitate 'white hair'? Is she 'appropriating my culture'...?

    Awhile ago I started hearing about 'the politics of hair' on the internet, and honestly, it was news to me.


  3. Although I cannot image the "politics of hair" having any meaning in Australia (outside aboriginal communities, I guess), it is a BIG DEAL in African-American and African-Canadian (or Afro-Caribbean Canadian) communities. Obviously I don't think it should be used as something to beat up on white folk about, anymore than white rap or jazz artists should be given a hard time for making rap or jazz more "palatable" to white audiences. As long as the originators of an art form are acknowledged (and, if applicable, paid), who cares? Anyone who resents black opera singers is an idiot and doesn't really get opera, as what matters most in opera is the VOICE.

    What DOES need to be examined is whether or not there is social or cultural coercion more or less forcing curly-haired women (especially 3C and beyond) to spend large amounts of money to make our hair more compliant to society's expectations about female hair. Naturally everyone should have agency over their own hair--unless they have agreed to give that up while at school or in a job--so just as Justin Bieber can give himself blond dreads, Beyoncé can give herself long, straight, shiny hair.

    Naturally it is pointless to cry that whole bunches of men find straight, shiny, female hair more attractive than fuzzy hair. Men are attracted to what they're attracted to, and that's it. (Of course, they can totally screw up their natural inclinations by getting addicted to porn.) I attract members of what I affectionately call "The Fuzzy Hair Brigade." I think I'll let my hair air-dry today and see if the boys are out.