I recently lost a friend over a fight about dreadlocks. It wasn’t a question of fashion taste—I don’t have dreadlocks nor did I have a problem with hers—but rather the fact that I was “at least slightly racist” because I think it’s OK for white people to have dreadlocks if they want them and she thinks it isn’t. And because she’s black, she gets to make that decision.
Her reasoning is that dreadlocks originated on slave ships as a result of the inhuman and filthy conditions captured Africans were subjected to on the journey over the Atlantic. Chaining people so close to each other that they didn’t have room to turn over, conditions worse than those afforded to livestock making the same journey, led to the rampant spread of diseases, many deaths, almost unimaginably horrible psychological trauma as a result of being trapped in your own waste and that of your companions and being chained for days or weeks to the rotting corpses of your family.
It also led to the dirt-and-grease-encrusted matted hair that we now call dreadlocks. This hairstyle was re-appropriated, so the story goes, first by slaves in the Caribbean/West Indies and then by other black slaves, former slaves, descendants of slaves, and by blacks generally as a remembrance of slavery and a means of taking ownership of their heritage. The spirit of this appropriation is akin to the long-standing tradition in the LGBT community of turning negative slurs into positive affirmations of identity, most notably with the terms “gay” and “queer,” both of which started as insults by outsiders and are now used to self-identify by members of the community.
Now, there is some debate as to whether or not this history of dreadlocks is entirely accurate; unquestionably, dreadlocks appeared in numerous cultures from around the globe thousands of years before the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th-19th centuries, and can still be seen in many cultures essentially untouched by the United States slave trade. But giving my friend the benefit of the doubt in terms of how dreadlocks came to prominence in our own contemporary culture, I still had some significant problems with her position.
First and foremost, equality means equality. In an ideal world, if one group has access to something than all groups should have access to it. There is no mode of expression, style of appearance, hygiene method, etc., that should be seen as morally/ethically correct for one group and otherwise for another group.
We don’t live in an ideal world, I will more than readily admit, and there are instances and situations where enhanced access for marginalized groups can do more to restore equality than mandating equal access. Hairstyle isn’t one of them. A white person wearing dreadlocks does absolutely nothing to promote or perpetuate racism, no matter what their reason for wearing dreadlocks is. Frankly, a black person wearing dreadlocks doesn’t do anything to promote and end to racism, either.
Dreadlocks, like any other involved in semi-standout hairstyle, are a highly personal statement no matter who is wearing them, and getting mad at someone for wearing a symbol with personal meaning is silly. And saying that people of a certain color shouldn’t be “allowed” to use a certain personal symbol in a way that has personal significance to them is, well…racist.
Turn On, Tune In, Cop Out
That isn’t even my big problem with my friend’s stand against dreadlocks on white people, though, nor the reason that she told me to unfriend her before she got around to just unfriending me, instead (passive-aggressiveness in a social justice warrior—unheard of, I know). Though I think she is “at least slightly racist” for her attitude towards white people and how they should be “disallowed” from expressing themselves through the hairstyle of their choice, I think her attitude and the passion behind it are indicative of far larger problems in the online “social justice” movement.
Dreadlocks were simply the latest item in a long and growing list of all-but-inconsequential issues that got my friend’s ire raised on Facebook and Tumblr. Perceived racism in a local bar’s joke about the end of the world as supposedly predicted by the Mayans, the looks she got (or thinks she got) wearing her go-go pants to do her grocery shopping, and privileged straight white men expressing an opinion on pretty much anything—there were the things she directed her activism toward
Strangely absent from the instances of injustice she brought to the attention of her social media followers were such things as the immense disparity in income and wealth between the white and black populations of the United States (or the related disparity in incarceration rates, educational achievement, entrepreneurship, etc.), the dearth of openly homosexual/bisexual/transgendered people in positions of governmental and/or economic/corporate power, the fact that people in many countries are still put to death for engaging in consensual sex with the partner(s) of their choice, and so on.
The real issues of social justice, which are legion, don’t seem to be on her radar at all. If it makes for an easy text-on-picture item to share, or can be boiled down to a two-sentence stance that draws a line of moral black and white (no pun intended) where even a question leads to automatic condemnation, she’s on board; if it requires a bit of research, some real critical thinking, or even worse real action, it’s not worth raising a fuss about.
In a city or country where the proportion of black business owners and black college students is far lower than the proportion of black people in the population as a whole, finding and fighting the root of these problems is way more important than railing against white people wearing dreadlocks, no matter what you think about white people or dreadlocks themselves. The social media form of social justice is training people to turn on, tune in, and cop out when it comes to real activism. You “like” someone’s angry and misinformed status, and your job is done.
What makes this even worse in the case of my friend is that I don’t doubt her sincerity or her capabilities for an instant. She is very active in the various minority communities with which she identifies, including running workshops for teenagers and trying to educate the public on racial and LGBT issues. She does put her beliefs into actions, in other words, but they are still the actions that are easy to take—actions that bring her into confrontation with other people’s ideas about expression and identity instead of the real and practiced prejudice that still exists in institutions throughout the country.
Misguided though I think her stance on dreadlocks is, I would care less about her position if it didn’t come at the expense of highlighting and fighting the real problems of racism that still exist. If she didn’t just focus on the easy, buzz-worthy topics and tried tackling some of the harder things, too. If social justice warriors won’t so distracted by superficial and imagined insults, they might become actually useful in effecting change.
If they’re having any current effect at all, it’s helping to perpetuate the status quo by ensuring the discussion never gets anywhere meaningful.