Hair is controversial: is the world heading to the apocalypse? Perhaps. But let me quickly tell you a story before the party’s over.
A white student with dreadlocks, from the University of San Francisco, was aproached by a black student. The girl was outraged by the boy’s hair and said passionately: “It’s my culture!” The boy tried to explain himself to the aggressive girl. Things didn’t turn violent because Cory Goldstein (the student’s name) managed to get away in time.
He got away but didn’t forget: in a video filmed after the incident, Goldstein explained that no one owns any particular aesthetic. And not only that, but dreadlocks have existed in numerous cultures, from the Egyptians to the Vikings, not to mention the Victorians. If anything, black people have just continued a tradition.
The cure’s worse than the disease: the United States is discussing whether dreadlocks on white boys are just an unforgiveable misappropriation from another culture. And even Europe’s joining in the craziness: in the Independent newspaper, the writer Wedaeli Chibelushi accuses Goldstein of disrespecting black people and of wearing his hairstyle with the arrogance of “white supremacy”. Can it be that the boy is unaware of the role played by hair in the fight against racism and racial segregation?
It’s sad to recognise the fact that yesterday there was Martin Luther King and today there are idiots discussing hairstyles.
I can only suggest that they watch the excellent award-winning documentary by Chris Rock called Good Hair. By the way, the last time I checked Chris Rock was not white. And the idea behind his film is to try to understand why most black people in the United States have such a problematic relationship with hair.
In short, they detest it. And they desperately try to straighten their hair with chemicals and “extensions”. I’m not exagerating when I say “desperately”: Chris Rock visited one of the most important factories supplying chemical products for this purpose. It’s in North Carolina (ironically one of the Confederate States which broke away from the Union in the 19th century). Conclusion: there are many black Americans who use sodium hydroxide to make their hair straight and beautiful.
Sodium hydroxide (commonly known as caustic soda) is a dangerous compound which can cause permanent lesions in the skin. And when a scientist is interviewed by Chris Rock and asks the obvious question (“But why do they do that?”), the actor also gives the obvious answer (“To look more white.”)
But people don’t have to put their health at risk when the idea is to imitate white people. Some more moneyed people buy extensions and resolve the problem without making holes in their heads. And where do these extensions come from?
Chris Rock flies to India. In the temples, people often pay promises by cutting their hair off really short. The cut hair is then washed, treated and exported to the United States. We could say that these are the “normal” suppliers.
But there are also mafias who attack sleeping (or unsuspecting) Indian women to steal their hair. The hair is really expensive and is destined for the same purpose.
I don’t know if people like Wedaeli Chibelushi feel outraged by this reality: the constant attempt of black Americans to “appropriate” the hairstyles of white people. And this appropriation often relies on great personal risk to or the exploitation of the poorest Asians. They would probably blame it again on white people and the hair-“imperialism” imposed by television, cinema or fashion.
In fact, if the “thinking” of creatures like Wedaeli Chibelushi were to be taken seriously, human cultures would be condemned to never mix with one another. A white person could never do Brazilian capoeira. A black person could never do kung-fu. Curiously, it would be a new kind of racial segregation, promoted by the very people who fight against racial segregation. Perfect.
For my part, the only thing I can promise is that I’ll never accuse any black guy of “stealing my culture” just because he has straight hair.
Unfortunately, the same thing can’t be said for the poor Indian women who wake up every morning with lighter heads.
JOÃO PEREIRA COUTINHO is a columnist in Portugal and Brazil and a regular political commentator on Portuguese television. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science and International Relations from the Catholic University of Portugal, where he also teaches. His latest books (‘Conservadorismo’ and ‘Vamos ao que Interessa’) have been published simultaneously in Portugal and Brazil.
Published in Folha de São Paulo – 5th April 2016