In an article posted on the Tab called Why it’s not OK for white people to have dreadlocks, Taiwo Ogunyinka painfully appeals to the sympathies of his readers why white people donning dreadlocks is just another example of cultural appropriation and white privilege. Muddled in his palaver and piercingly peremptory, Ogunyinka claims that whilst he doesn’t “know” why white people choose to wear dreadlocks, he nevertheless surmises three reasons. Not only that, Ogunyinka has saved us the trouble of untangling the implications of each possible motivation for why white people choose to culturally appropriate dreadlocks:
- “If you [white people] wear them [dreadlocks] as an appreciation of black culture, then by wearing dreadlocks and perpetuating white privilege as a result then aren’t you actually harming the black diaspora in the UK? If you truly cared for black people and not just our culture you wouldn’t want to wear dreadlocks.”
- “If you [white people] wear dreadlocks because it “looks cool” then you’re still perpetuating white privilege and you’ve chosen to be ignorant of the significant contemporary history.”
- “Finally, if you [white people] wear them because you think it symbolises a humanist ideal, then you’ve attached the wrong political meaning to them and instead you’re damaging the anti-oppression movement for which they truly symbolise.
Now, all three of these reasons sadly fail to clarify i) what this phenomenon ‘white privilege’ is (which does exist, of course), ii) why white people wearing dreadlocks somehow perpetuates white privilege, and iii) how dreadlocks necessarily implicates an anti-oppression which, enrobed by the privilege, weakens its significance.
Whilst it is tempting to write at length concerning how abstruse Ogunyinka’s argument is, isn’t there a larger issue here? Doesn’t the more salient question concern whether the unwitting or intentional act to segregate cultures as “this belongs to us, that belongs to you” – which finds its most emphatic expression in arguments against cultural appropriation – actually help redress racial ills or, in fact, does it perpetuate them? Whilst it goes without saying that cultures be portioned the [justified] right to exist without being threatened into oblivion, there are dire consequences that cultural exclusivity (exclusive to those who happen to be born into them) pose: epistemic consequences being one such example, and another example being the autocratic-like impediments to the flourishing of individuality in a society increasingly demanding conformism to pre-existing norms and conventions.
I think the bigger issue Ogunyinka is trying to point out in his article is that cultural fads are crossing epistemological boundaries and resulting in “cultural appropriation” which present considerable problems in the “oppressed” cultural domains. Under cultural globalisation and the resulting trans-cultrural diffusion, the spaces between and within cultural domains are changing, as is the epistemic factors used to both acknowledge, institutionalise and perpetuate them. An extension of this process is homogeneity, the end of culture, the end of difference, and the forgetting of certain cultural histories.
The 17th century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, perceptive of socio-historical trends, argued that there is a tendency towards one unified world which would impede the existence of cultures. If true, one could certainly have sympathies for those in a culture – a domain which people come to identity with – who are struggling for, or historically have struggled for, recognition in a given society. After all, an understanding of oneself (and being identified) as a member of, say, black culture – something Ogunyinka would say necessitates that a person be black – subsumes a background of shared practices opened up within that cultural domain. Accordingly, to be a member of black culture, for instance, one is expected to have some set of the ready-made styles of behaviour, and other signifiers, and a shared intelligibility laid out in advance by existing norms and conventions inherent in that domain, which, Ogunyinka would argue, includes the legitimate choice of having dreadlocks.
However, even if it were true that the various cultures that we are born into, those things that provide us the pre-theoretical grasp of the structures that make possible particular modes of being in a particular cultural domain, and intercultural cognisance, find their boundaries blurred, should we not be striding towards an openness that permits us to dwell in many cultures and the capacity to move among them? Is it not possible to do so without consigning to oblivion a cultural domain, especially those which provide significant cultural insights concerning how our cultural world has reached its current state – like the anti-oppression movement within black culture which provided important historical achievements for society to learn from?
What is often overlooked in these debate is the fact that we are constantly making choices that reflect our understanding of who we are as individuals. There is something deeply problematic about the ready-made style of norms within particular cultural domains we are expected to follow (and not follow). By “doing what others like ourselves do”, e.g. adopting haircuts (supposedly) exclusively associated with white culture, we fail to own up to our own individuality. We eschew responsibility to make our own choices as individuals and, consequently, we fail to become the authors of our own lives. To the extent our lives are unowned or disowned, existence is inauthentic, not our own. This is especially paramount when one “appropriates” a cultural practice from one group whilst doing so with one’s foot in another cultural domain.
The refusal to be recognised as, or rather, held as, an individual first and foremost in the cultural/political world, let alone being an individual, is one of the crucial linchpins why people cry foul at supposed acts of cultural appropriation. In acts of supposed cultural appropriation, people are seen as indispensably linked to, or rather ‘reduced’ to, a particular (primary) culture (e.g., white culture) whilst trying to “steal” things from another (e.g., black culture) and, at times, claiming what is stolen as belonging to their own primary culture. Thus, a person with light skin pigmentation wearing dreadlocks will be seen by certain people as stealing a black-culture element because that person will be seen as inexorably linked to white, western culture.
We all have the capacity to be recognised, or rather, held, in the cultural/political world, as a) an individual first and foremost or b) as a member of a cultural group first and foremost. Members of white, western culture and members of black culture have the capacity to reduce some person x to a cultural domain; and some other members of white, western culture and black culture can also see that person x as first and foremost an individual. Reducing someone to the cultural domains into which people are born perhaps is a ubiquitous occurrence, and perhaps all people have the capacity to adopt a communitarian philosophy as the main and almost exclusive vehicle by which a person is identified.
This explains the whole woeful, and increasingly used, claim that “you cannot understand group x because you are, say, white”. One is reduced to their cultures, automata like, byproducts of cultural domains into which they were born, as being constrained by the background of shared practices (and a shared background intelligibility) that is exclusive to their cultural domain. Worryingly, this has been a longstanding social malady: the Nuremberg Laws, the Eight Banners under the Qing dynasty, the caste system in India, apartheid in South Africa, slavery and racial segregation in the US – all underpinned, to whatever degree, by a rationale that reduces an individual to a particular fixed cultural (or at times racial and social) domain without the epistemic and normative capacity to adopt and assimilate into different cultural domains if they should choose.
Exclusive cultural domains ‘are anchored in othering’, whether people like Ogunyinka wants to accept that or not. Ruth Lister in her 2004 book ‘poverty’ defines othering as a “process of differentiation and demarcation, by which the line is drawn between ’us’ and ’them’ – between the more and the less powerful – and through which distance is established and maintained”. Ogunyinka, through maintaining cultural exclusivity by way of an appeal to socio-historical circumstances and the significance of these cultural forms, is othering one culture from another. The motivation may well be different but the end-result is the same. Social distance is not the answer to racial inequities – it sustains them.
Allowing people to freely shift cultures is important in that it provisions a much broader shared intelligibility than those contained in exclusive cultural pockets. An inclusive shared intelligibility provides an equal playing field in which individuals, irrespective of the cultural domains into which they have no choice to be born, can have the means to pursue the good life and be a party to what can most fittingly be called “experiments in living” – ways of being oneself exceeding the existing norms and conventions constrained by local, exclusive cultural domains. The freedom should be afforded to every individual irrespective of the cultural domains into which they happen to born. Moreover, allowing people to freely shift cultures actually forestalls the incendiary distance between cultural groups. Martin Luther King pithily captured both of these points when he pithily said,
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools“.
Maintaining the idea, which Ogunyinka is surely implicated as doing, that cultural domains (and all its shared practices) be exclusive to those who are born into it by no fault of their own, especially true for black culture given the historical significance attached to it, one thwarts the fashioning of a broader shared intelligibility and, consequently, a heterogeneous cultural world in which people can engage in “experiments in living”. A heterogeneous state provides the conditions in which one can become an individual, authentic, ways of being oneself exceeding the existing norms and conventions provided by the cultural domains one is born into.
People like Ogunyinka will have to discern why it is that he thinks people can never truly assimilate into a different culture than that they were born into (thus explaining why someone with white pigmentation cannot not commit cultural appropriation), and why it is that a communitarian philosophy (must) be the main and almost exclusive vehicle by which a person is identified. Troubling for the champions of what Sarah Peace calls the anti-appropriation police is that the reductionist tendencies is on a par with much of the rhetoric coming from the European far-right who, in their choler over the politics of western cultural inclusivity, argue that outside groups are devoid of the capacity to successfully assimilate into their white, western culture.
Is it okay then for white people to wear dreadlocks? Yes. Why? The crucibles of difference calls for the building of cultural bridges, not the continued entrenchment of cultural walls.