This is the post about white people with dreadlocks. This is the post about white people who just don’t get the possibility that they could be doing something colonialist. This is the post written by someone who looks very much like a Nice White Lady but who is actually a white lady who thinks it is really, really, really – like intensely – fun to piss off the old boys club of “radical” movements.
The first question I always get when I talk about white boys with dreadlocks is: why am I so hell-bent on oppressing them? WHY DO I HATE THEM SO?
Another goes something like “dreads are cool.” This doesn’t even deserve a breakdown. White people have this terrible, awful, no-good habit of trying to take everyone else’s “authenticity” because they feel so like lost and indie and culturally dislocated and their poor little selves are so tired, because they have all this power and it’s so exhausting. This is related, but not limited to, white people wearing headdresses, white people throwing “pimps and hos” parties (and the million fucking pictures of white people on Facebook throwing fake gang signs for like their high school mascots), and the Trailor Park Lounge in NYC.
Another enjoyable response is “but, um, there’s debate in the black community about this, so, um, until that’s resolved, I’ll just keep my colonialist hair, thanks.” Is there also debate in the women community about whether or not it’s OK to call women bitches? Because did you know? Some women use the word bitch to refer to one another! Obviously this means that dudes have total permission to call ladies bitches, right?
Another is simply about how because their movement is “progressive”, it’s not possible for anyone who’s popular within it to be doing something anti-revolutionary. Since they keep using the words “anarchist” and “revolution” in their propaganda – excuse me, viral marketing – they must be doing something that’s actually bringing about the liberation of all people, right? Except for that tiny detail about how in “progressive” movements, the lives and voices of women of color are consistently erased. We see this happening in the “emergent/ing” church culture in the U.S. right now. No matter how many times Phyllis Tickle points out one token emergent person of color when she’s lecturing about this nonsensical rummage sale the Church is supposedly having right now (while she’s handing out emergent bibliographies that feature about 75% white dude authors), the fact remains that the public face of this movement is white, cis, able-bodied, straight, overly-school-educated, dudes – with lovely, fertile, doting wives, who of course changed their names when they got married. (Note to those outside freaky insular U.S.ian Christian world: the New Hot Thing Hotter Than The New Harry Potter Movies in U.S.ian Christianity is white men sitting at coffeeshops blogging – preferably in diverse neighborhoods, so they can blog about how they are in a diverse neighborhood, and you know, they’re, like, not scared. They’re like, down. This kind of fawning results in major book deals for white men with dreadlocks. It equals money. And it equals speaking gigs and national publication. It equals giving them extraordinary amounts of power predicated on their privilege to write books precisely about how they don’t believe in power. Because the only real power is state power because that’s the only power that can affect them directly. Racial, economic, gender, social, cis, and ethnic privilege – power they benefit from and crush other people with – is not real power. Because they’ve read Foucault, so they’re immune from being oppressors.) So these dudes are everywhere and some of them have dreadlocks, and there’s this problem wherein sometimes people of color are actually at these conferences. And I’m thinking now of a friend of mine, whose name I won’t mention because mentioning it would get her in trouble and fuck up references that she needs, who goes to these conferences and she has a bigger heart than I do, she goes open-hearted and desiring deeply to witness to Christ at work there, this is a friend who has literally channeled Christ though her body for me when I needed it, and for whom I have done the same, goes to these conferences to find…what, exactly? White dudes with dreads, and their presence makes it abundantly clear that the really basic language about how to make someone feel welcome, how to let marginalized people know that their struggles are worthwhile, is utterly missing. Because the only appropriate thing to say would have been “O my fucking sweet Mary mother of God WHAT are you doing with your HAIR? Do you have NO idea what that hair means? Do you have ZERO understanding that dreadlocks occupy a specific, intentional place in the history of black struggle in the United States and around the world? Do you not understand on a very basic level what it means to be a black woman and to try to have natural hair and not get hired for good jobs and to be asked to have their hair fucking touched all the time by ‘well-intentioned’ white people? Do you not understand that locs are an intensely political statement and that black people – especially black women – are constantly policed about their hair? Do you not have basic cultural competency? Are you ENTIRELY unversed in ways that it is a fucking day-to-day struggle to even exist and advocate for oneself in the hegemonic power structure of contemporary America and trying to negotiate the politics of their fucking hair on top of that exhausts them daily? Do you even care? Or do you just care about pretending to piss off a few well-heeled white people, thus proving you are the least educated revolutionary EVER? What are you going to do next? Wear a hijab? DO YOU FEEL ENTITLED TO THAT, TOO, BECAUSE YOU APPARENTLY FEEL ENTITLED TO FUCKING EVERYTHING ELSE?”
But my friend, she can’t say that. Because saying that would cost her prestige and power in a system already intent on denying her voice. And she needs power to survive, in really basic ways, in really basic “I need a job and money” ways.
This is some shit.
So I try to not go to these conferences, right, for obvious reasons, but one time I do, and one time I ask a question about why, when we are finally at a point in the church when women, queer folks, trans folks, people of color, disabled folks, are finally finally able to start claiming some space and power within the church, the church falls head over heels in sweaty mad love with a new movement whose major voices are young white cis straight married temporarily-able-bodied dudes. In this comment, I specifically call out white dudes with dreads, wondering why the emergent thing is all about like, truth, and stuff, but unable to hold anyone accountable for their most basic public actions. And having dreads as a white person in the public eye IS A POLITICAL STATEMENT. And that political statement is “I don’t give a shit who I make feel unwelcome in this space, because obviously my personal expression is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING THAT EVER HAPPENED. I especially don’t give a shit if the person I make feel unwelcome is a black woman. And I will intentionally seek out black women who are not bothered by white people having dreads in order to make myself feel better. Because anything that resembles accountability I will automatically count as THREAT and EVERYONE KNOWS WHITE MEN MUST NOT BE THREATENED OBVIOUSLY WE ARE A DYING BREED PLEASE SWEET JESUS WHY DOESN’T ANYONE CARE ABOUT MY FEEEEEEEELINGS.”
And that comment, um, doesn’t go super well. As you might imagine. So I’m writing this, offering this one howl into the universe, and offering a few things that might help if dilemmas about what’s appropriate in “revolutionary” communities comes up.
5. Learn how to do the most basic power analysis.
Maybe, with this, we could maybe just maybe make a space where everyone is, in fact, welcome. Maybe, then, just maybe, we could start to build a tiny piece of the world where colonization is not the default experience.
[NOTE: When I wrote this piece, I was unaware that there is a story about the word "dreadlocks," saying that the term is derogatory, deriving from people assessing Rastas as looking "dreadful" or having "dreadful locks." (Other etymologies trace the term back to East African warrior locs, which inspired dread in enemies, and some Rastafarians use "dread" like "fear", as in "fear of the Lord." If anyone has further information or feedback about this, please write to me in the comments!) Another Special Communioner is uncomfortable with the term "dreadlock" because of these negative connotations, and refers to her own hair solely as "locs," emphasizing the undeniable super hotness of her hair. When I asked her if I should go back and alter the piece, exchanging each instance of the word "dreadlocks" with "locs" she said, no, it's probably accurate to keep the "dreadful" in there when we're talking about the crime of white people locs! I apologize if this post rang untrue because of my ignorance of this one history of the term - that is a result of my privilege, and my ignorance, and does not reflect on the brilliance of the other SCers.]