We must avoid generalizing and include specific people in discussions about race
“Can I touch your hair?”
I don’t think I’ve ever asked anyone that question in my life, and I have a very hard time imagining a situation where I would. I’ve never walked up to a total stranger or someone I barely knew in a bar, at school, or at the water cooler at work, and asked them if I could touch the hair on their head, with my fingers eagerly stretched outwards.
It sounds absolutely disgusting to me, yet it is a question I am asked a minimum of once a week, and that’s just because I wear a toque most of the time.
Yes, as you must have guessed, I am black, with long, beautiful, natural hair. Locs to be exact (not dreadlocks, because there is nothing dreadful about them), and yes, the people requesting to touch them are typically white. After politely saying no, I am usually asked insulting, but amusing questions like: “So you don’t wash your hair to get it like that, right?” Or, “Do you have any weed?”
Black people’s hair has always seemed to be a fascination for some white people. Some seem amused, and others puzzled by it: wanting to touch it, asking questions about it, and even sometimes attempting to emulate it. And some seem to fear it: wanting us to shave it off, cover it, or straighten it, wanting it to mimic theirs so that they feel more comfortable when we’re around.
Luckily, in Canada, we don’t seem to hear as many stories of discrimination against natural black hairstyles like in the United States, where their justice system found it legal for Catastrophe Management Solutions to rescind Chastity Jones’s job offer because she didn’t comply to their grooming policy, which is supposedly “unrelated to race,” by having locs. Or, where recently, Andrew Johnson, a high school varsity athlete, was forced to cut off his locs or forfeit a wrestling match.
Last month, a comedian was told he couldn’t perform at a comedy bar ironically titled “Snowflake Comedy Club.” He also couldn’t perform at another event held at the Coop Les Récoltes, a bar and solidarity co-operative operated by Université du Québec à Montréal’s Group de Rechercher d’Intérêt Public, because he has locs.
Well, actually because he’s white, and has locs.
In an extremely long message posted on their Facebook page, the Coop defended their decision to ban Zach Poitras from performing at their establishment. Essentially, they explained that they operate what they call a safe space exempt of oppression, in which no discrimination or harassment of any kind will be tolerated. They stated that they consider a white person with locs to be a form of cultural appropriation, which they describe on their post as: “the fact that a person from a dominant culture appropriates symbols, clothes or hairstyles of people from historically dominated cultures.”
They continued by saying that: “It is a privilege to be able to wear dreads as a white person and to be seen as fashionable, or as being edgy, while a black person will be denied access to job opportunities or spaces (housing, schools, parties, sports competitions, etc.).” Are white people with locs, like Poitras, racist, cultural appropriators? I don’t know––the few interactions I’ve had with them, I usually just sign for my package, and they ride off on their bicycles. I’ve never felt oppressed.
The incident and the message posted by the Coop has sparked a nationwide conversation on cultural appropriation and racism over the last few weeks. Well, a conversation that’s had mostly among white people, in my opinion.
Journal de Montréal columnist, Richard Martineau, ridiculed the matter, stating that this situation has opened his eyes, and he will no longer use numbers because they were invented by Arabs, and the fact that lithium batteries were created by a Moroccan man will cause him to stop using his cellphone, because he now realizes that would also be a form of cultural appropriation.
On Twitter, many debated the matter, like user @LavenderBlume who posed the question: “Why is #CulturalAppropriation so hard for people to understand?” Alongside a meme asking: “What if America loved black people as much as black culture?” This was then answered by user @thurnuz, who claims Poitras is innocent of what he is accused of, stating that locs “have been found depicted in frescoes from Mioa over 3,500 years ago, and were worn in ancient Greece and Sparta.” Therefore, a white person wearing locs is not appropriating black culture, the user argued.
Yes, I do believe a conversation should be had on the matter, but as Poitras himself said in a statement obtained by Radio Canada, “I do not think it’s up to whites to decide what is racist, or cultural appropriation.” This is not a conversation white people should be having alone. Not only should minorities be involved in the discussion being had about their cultures, I believe they should be leading them.
In a second message, posted to Facebook a few days later, the Coop attempted to further explain their decision not to let Poitras perform. They stated that they wished to clarify that they didn’t speak on behalf of all “marginalized” populations, and they never intended to suggest that the comedian was racist. But they reiterated their belief that his presence would not have been in accordance with their “inclusivity” policy. A policy, which along with their previous post, they now claim was written by “racialized” people.
The word “racialize” is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the act of giving racial character to something, or someone. I know what “racialized” means, but I looked it up because I would like to know exactly what the Coop meant by “racialized.” I may be reading too much into it, but it sounds a little condescending to me. It appears to me as if they are speaking of defenseless victims, or fragile creatures who have been made victims of their own race.
I hope the Coop is referring to particular people, in their particular group, because as a black person, I only speak for myself. I would feel pretty insulted if they are insinuating that Poitras wasn’t allowed to perform in their space on my behalf, as well as by being called “racialized.”
Personally, my concerns when it comes to cultural appropriation are less about whether or not Poitras can have locs, but whether or not the “genuine” red, gold, and green Rasta hat he might hold them in was bought from real Rastafarians, or from an American company that also sells sombreros, dashikis and chopsticks.
It’s the context of the hairstyle that might hurt, or anger me, not the hairstyle itself. If we are going to accuse him of appropriating Rastafarian culture, examples of real issues for me would be if his comedy routine consisted of him being a caricature of that culture; if he was claiming ownership of its rituals and practices; if he was trying to rewrite its history. If he was trying to commercialize it, presenting a whitened, watered down, or cartoonish version of it to consumers, or if he was trying to profit off of it by misrepresenting it as a dangerous culture of violence and drugs––then, I’d be upset.
Although the social justice warriors at the Coop may have had good intentions, I believe they should consult more sources than just the “racialized” people in their social justice circles. They should consult people other than Greg Robinson, the UQAM professor specializing in black immigration in Canada, who appears to have been quoted in all the articles I’ve read on the matter, and seems to claim that white people with locs equates to white people wearing blackface, or using the n-word. I’m hoping he was misquoted, because I don’t feel like going on to explain how those are completely different things.
In my opinion, the Coop’s actions created an opportunity for detractors of real racial oppression to downplay the notion of cultural appropriation, and for those unaware of it until this situation, to believe it is a topic of no merit. Again, they might have had the right idea, but they must be wary of the battles they pick, and on whose behalf they are supposedly fighting them. Because, as philosopher and writer J.P. Satre said, “When the rich wage war, it’s the poor who die.” Or, in this case, the “racialized,” I guess.
Graphic by Ana Bilokin