Is it OK for white people to have dreadlocks?

A still from a viral video of the confrontation between a white man and a black woman. Despite the title of the film, the university involved says the woman was not a campus employee.Image copyright

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A still from a viral video of the confrontation between a white man and a black woman. Despite the title of the film, the university involved says the woman was not a campus employee

A viral video has started a debate about “cultural appropriation” and the racial politics of hair.

The footage picks up in the middle of a confrontation between two young people – one a white man, the other a black woman. The argument centres around the man’s hairstyle. Specifically, his dreadlocks.

“You’re saying I can’t have a hairstyle because of your culture – why?” the man says.

“Because it’s my culture,” the woman answers back. At one point she pushes him and tries to stop him from walking away.

The video, which has been watched more than three million times on YouTube, kicked off a debate online.

The man was later identified as Cory Goldstein, a student at San Francisco State University, where the video was apparently filmed. During the argument, Goldstein at one point declares: “You have no right to tell me what I can wear.” Most of those commenting seemed to agree – many were critical of the woman.

“Props to the white dude for keeping it civil,” read one typical comment.

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But beyond the specific incident in the video, what of the charge of “cultural appropriation” – the use of another ethnic group’s fashion, art, or in this case, hairstyle? In a later video response, Goldstein made a distinction between “appreciation” and “appropriation”.

“When people wear Native American headdresses, that’s cultural appropriation,” he said, because only people with “high standing” in the Native American community have traditionally been given the right to wear them. (It’s this thinking which led the Glastonbury Festival to ban the sale of headdresses, which were once somewhat fashionable).

“The fact I have dreadlocks doesn’t mean I’m trying to appropriate culture, it means I love and respect their culture and it’s something I hold true to myself,” Goldstein said. “These things should bring us closer together.”

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Cory Goldstein spoke to a local news outlet, Golden Gate Xpress, after the video went viral

The woman in the video has apparently shut down her social media accounts and did not respond to requests for comments. Her personal details were quickly circulated on message boards and social networks.

Alongside the discussion about this particular incident there was also a lot of chatter online about the politics of hair.

Yesha Callahan, an editor at The Root, a website aimed at African-American readers, told BBC Trending radio that she didn’t agree with the woman’s actions, but can understand why some people are uncomfortable with white people with dreadlocks.

“People may be showing appreciation, but they should be careful of sidestepping into appropriation,” she says. “I understand where [the woman in the video] is coming from. She sees someone with a hairstyle who’s wearing it freely, who probably doesn’t get as much push back as she would, if she had the same hairstyle. Sometimes people call dreadlocks ‘dirty’ or ‘ghetto’ if they see them on a black person.”

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Callahan, who blogged about the video, said hairstyles are an occasionally popular and sometimes thorny topic of conversation amongst The Root’s readers.

“Hair is a huge part of black culture. People choose braids, dreadlocks, choose to straighten or weave – and a lot of people bring up these choices. Are black people appropriating white culture by straightening their hair? Well, there’s a difference between assimilation and appropriation.”

Callahan says she once dated a white man who had dreadlocks. She had no problem with the hairstyle, but rather the slapdash way he pulled it off.

“He had nicely maintained dreads… but he didn’t have those until I took him to a salon,” she joked. “I wasn’t going to walk around with someone with raggedy hair.”

Reporting by Emma Wilson

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