Friday, February 19th, 2010...2:12 pm
White People Shouldn’t Wear Dreadlocks: Thoughts on Appropriating Culture
There was a debate over lunch in the Berkman Center kitchen today over whether white people (or Asian people, for that matter) should wear dreadlocks. I’m of the opinion that it’s a terrible idea, though at the time I couldn’t really articulate why without sounding like I was being snotty and judgmental. My gut reaction when I see a white kid with dreadlocks is to roll my eyes–this kid is trying way too hard to be something he’s not. What I think is behind that is something my friend David raised on his blog earlier this week: Western appropriation/importation of cultural memes from other countries. (Note: I *think* we’re still friends though I have to wonder after his blanket denigration of female/male friendship at the beginning of his post).
There’s an interesting discussion in the comments about what counts as Western importation: David thinks the list of Western imports would be short, though I think I’m with Nick. There are TONS of things that we’ve imported from other cultures. The problem is, like with white kids wearing dreadlocks who CLEARLY aren’t rastafarians no matter how much Legend they’ve listened to, we don’t also import the cultural meaning behind them. I’m sure it’s all well-meaning, but it’s also really clumsy. First, it smacks of trying to run away from who you are. As much as we may not like it, where we come from matters. I’m all for cross-cultural appreciation, but there are ways to enjoy and appreciate other cultures without losing your own authenticity. There’s got to be a level of self-awareness and humility involved. Second, when appropriated the symbols tend to lose any importance or context and just get swallowed up into our own ethno-centric view of what they *should* mean (how many times have you seen someone with a Chinese/Japanese tattoo who clearly doesn’t speak the language?). This sort of appropriation is different from the remixing that Nick talks about in the comments on David’s post because all respect for the original meme is lost.
At the end of our lunch discussion, I was convinced that it’s not ALWAYS wrong for white people to wear dreadlocks. Only 90% of the time. And if they do, they better actually be rastafarians or have been adopted by Lenny Kravitz. Otherwise, ride that good hair thing out.