Black women's hair has an extensive political and cultural history that is, as Marita Golden writes, "knotted and gnarled by issues of race, politics, history, and pride." One Black woman at San Francisco State University reminded a white dude of this tangled web of hair politics on Tuesday (March 29).
In the viral video, an unnamed Black woman confronts an unidentified white man about the locs sprouting from his scalp. It is unclear what transpired between the two before the video begins, but it starts with the white student saying, "You're saying that I can't have a hair style because of your culture? Why?"
"Because it's my culture," she responds.
The white student argues that African-Americans don't own locs since Egyptians — who are members of the African diaspora, by the way — also wore the storied hairstyle. Too bad he's not Egyptian.
The confrontation escalates, and the woman unjustifiably grabs Mr. White Man With Locs' arm. Eventually, he tells her she has no right to tell him what he can wear before the video ends.
After the video racked up over 130,000 views on YouTube, San Francisco State University released a statement:
"San Francisco State University promotes the rights of the campus community to engage in free speech, but does not condone behavior that impedes the safety or well-being of others. We are taking the matter seriously and will promptly and thoroughly investigate this incident through applicable University channels, including our campus student conduct procedures."
If nothing else, this video showed me how much nuance is missing from the cultural appropriation debate — and why it's time to have dimensional conversations about race and hair.
I began growing locs in 2013, and it has been nothing short of a spiritual experience, which is the entire point of wearing them, according to Lori Tharps, an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University and co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.
interesting because locs are not necessarily
a style per say," she told Revelist. "A lot of different cultures claim locs for religious reasons." This is true for the global Rastafarian community, who consider their hair part of a religious transformation.
"People from different faiths look at their hair to be holy and as a
form of strength and power," hairstylist Lavette Slater told Refinery29. "To not comb your hair, to
some, is a disregard of vanity and things of the world."
However, there's also a very specific racial element associated with locs — because as Tharps noted, "our hair has always
been a source of tension and provocation."
"In the United States, [locs are] associated with those of Kenyan warriors who wore their hair in dredlocs against the British," Tharps said. "The British said Kenyan warriors' hair was so dreadfully scary.
Some people don’t like to refer to them as dredlocs because it includes the the
The Black woman in the video's anger is palpable. I understand it because I've lived it. It's the anger of having to explain African-American culture over and over again to those too willfully-ignorant to understand that it's violent to embrace our culture without embracing us.
It's the anger of seeing the Kylie Jenner's of the world capitalize on Black American aesthetics, like larger lips and cornrows, while Ciara is referred to as inelegant for rocking faux locs. It's the anger of seeing Black girls suspended from school for wearing locs while hipsters don them to convey their affinity for marijuana. It's the anger of seeing singer Zendaya chided for wearing locs on a red carpet while white guys with locs are given a pass.
It's the anger associated with being disregarded and erased over and over and over again.
Yet, attacking a white person wearing locs isn't a viable solution, according to Tharps. "For someone to walk up to you in public, an individual, to express their opinion is completely different phenomenon," she said. "It’s dangerous. I'm not suggesting that there isn’t an opportunity for conversation and education, but stopping a person in public is dangerous."
While Tharps noted that there's hundreds of years of oppression associated with Black hair, she cautions against policing those who wear locs.
"The policing that’s happening to young girls and grown men in situations who works in courier services like UPS and FedEx because they wear their hair in locs... these are institutions that are policing hair," Tharps said. "These institutions are relying on codes of conduct that say these styles don’t belong in institutions that they’re participating. For someone to walk up to you in public, an individual, to express their opinion is completely different phenomenon. It’s dangerous."
Hair is political. There's no getting around that reality. Every time I have my locs washed and placed in intricate styles, I can feel the ancestors smiling. I also know that I'm making a decision that could have material consequences for my career and my every day interactions with people who don't know the extensive history of locs.
How can we navigate these difficult tensions around race and hair without automatically accusing, interrogating, and making assumptions?
"The obvious and most easiest thing to do, especially on a college campus, to have a forum, have a lecture series, a reading, anything you can organize, and invite Mr. White Locs Man to learn about the origins of the hairstyle he's wearing," Tharps said.
"Invite him to have
the conversation, and then he may reconsider his hairstyle," she continued. "It is certainly
better for them to be educated in a way that’s not hostile or even violent."
While this places the onus on Black people to educate others about our culture, it can also open a necessary dialogue, especially in a time when racial tensions have reached a national boiling point.
possible to have this conversation, especially on a college campus," Tharps explained. "You
can get that same message out there without policing [white people] individually and
attacking them on the street. There are ways to educate the public because we
now have the ability to reach anybody with the Internet."
There are no easy answers here, but as a Black woman with locs, I know it is beyond time to begin conversations — together.
Main Image: Screenshot YouTube/Nicholas Silvera