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Provocation in blonde – When hair becomes political

A comment by Marie Dudek /



Fridays For Future is an organisation, which stands for young people who want to fight against the climate crisis and generate political and social attention for that cause. The weekly strikes that are held every or every other Friday constitute a huge part of Fridays For Future’s work. Especially the global climate strikes, where people all over the world take to the streets on the same day to demonstrate for climate protection, are a regular topic in the news and media. Lately in Germany, however, it was not so much the size and scope of the climate strikes that was discussed in the media, but rather the invitation of musician Ronja Maltzahn by the Fridays For Future chapter in Hanover, that made it big in the media.



Picture: Jonas Greuter (Pixaby)



Together with her band, Maltzahn makes dreamy, soulful folk music. Her music videos are strikingly often set outside, with forests and meadows providing the backdrop. Nature-oriented and peaceful - one could think that this fits the message of Fridays For Future excellently. But why the disinvitation shortly before 25 March? Instead of her music, Maltzahn's appearance was the deciding factor here: she is a white person and wears dark blonde dreadlocks. Fridays For Future Hannover took this circumstance as an opportunity to formulate a rather rude refusal, which Maltzahn in turn published on Instagram, causing a huge media echo.


In the cancellation, the Hanover chapter refers to the fact that Maltzahn's hairstyle would represent cultural appropriation. White people with dreadlocks do not have to experience racist discrimination like BiPOC (Black, Indigenous People Of Colour, a self-designation of non-white people) who wear dreadlocks. Dreadlocks were originally a natural hairstyle of non-white people (Spiegel, 2022). For this reason, dreadlocks worn by white people can be hurtful to BiPOC. Because Fridays For Future wants to represent a discrimination-free space for non-white people as well, they could not justify Maltzahn performing at the climate strike with her dreadlocks at the demonstration - if she were to cut off her hair, things would be different again (Spiegel, 2022). This was roughly the wording of the Hanover chapter, which has since been deleted and can no longer be found in the original.


As a result, articles in the online editions of established media houses overflowed, and heaven and hell also broke out in the social media. Is it okay that Ronja Maltzahn was so brusquely disinvited because of her hairstyle, was the leading question. Can a hairstyle be hurtful and offensive, and if so, how? Is our society ignorant towards minorities, is this again a form of structural racism? Or is it too much fuss about nothing?


Instead of the post with the rejection of Maltzahn, one can only find a video on her Instagram account today, in which she explains that she did not want to stir up hatred and start conflicts by publicising the message, but on the contrary stands for peace. She also mentions her new album and ongoing musical projects. This makes me wonder: Is it really necessary to promote peace and one's own music at the same time? It seems to me that Ronja Maltzahn is arguing past the debate. In an interview, she told the German newspaper DIE ZEIT that her music stands for "peace, tolerance and respect", that she has always seen her dreadlocks as an externalisation of her values, as a sign of vegetarianism and commitment to climate protection (Jakob, 2022). On Instagram, Maltzahn writes that she has never dealt with the [original] political meaning of her hairstyle, never even knew about it.


Of course, Ronja Maltzahn is not the first white person to wear dreadlocks. I see people with dreadlocks on the street every day, and one is able to see white stars like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus with this hairstyle - at least temporarily. The discussion about white people with dreadlocks, about cultural appropriation, discrimination and racism is not new. With said celebrities, criticism comes up again and again, the debate goes on: Is it okay, or not? What amazes me, however, is that Maltzahn, as a dreadlock-wearing person, has apparently never dealt with this. The question I am asking myself is: How can it be that the musician claims respect as one of her core values, but does not deal with the historically significant hairstyle and its meaning? Because dreadlocks are about much more than hair.


Today in the Western world, dreadlocks are worn mainly in social environments that pride themselves on tolerance and politically left-wing, inclusive attitudes (Wulf, 2022). Maltzahn, with her reference to a vegetarian diet and climate protection, can probably also be counted among these. However, the origin of dreadlocks as a consciously worn hairstyle lies elsewhere.


Dreadlocks originated as a sign of the Rastafarian movement and stand for two things in its context. Firstly, the long matted braids represent the fear of God in the Rastafarian faith. The longer the braid, the closer the wearer is to God (Hoeder, 2019). Moreover, the hairstyle was considered a sign of protest against white colonial power in Jamaica, an open rejection of Western ideals of beauty and straight hair (Wulf, 2022). On the one hand, dreadlocks were a sign of Black people's self-empowerment in a time marked by racist oppression. On the other hand, "dread" from the word "dreadlock" was given a new meaning by white people: "dread" now represented the fear towards the wearers of this hairstyle and dreadlocks were used as a characteristic which facilitated persecution of non-Christian people (Hoeder, 2019).


Today, dreadlocks still depict a political symbol of Black people and their struggle against racist oppression (WDR aktuell, 2022). Furthermore, BiPOC with dreadlocks today still have to deal with racist hostility because of their appearance and, connected to that, their hairstyle - an aspect that white dreadlock wearers do not have to face (WDR aktuell, 2022). Black people's awareness of these different experiences can provoke emotional hurt (WDR aktuell, 2022).


This difference, which is often not perceived as extreme by white people, is a result of structural racism. Structural racism is also at the core of the debate about cultural appropriation that white dreadlock wearers are often accused of. Cultural appropriation means that people adorn themselves with traditional artefacts or customs that originated from other cultures without really being able to grasp or understand their historicity and meaning (cf. Kastner, 2017). Greg Tate published a book called "Everything but the burden" in 2003. The title itself describes the problem of cultural appropriation very well. Tate problematises the fact that when white people make use of culturally determined fashion or music such as hip hop, R'n'B or blues, they do not have to take on the burden of racial discrimination and exclusion inherent in the emergence of, say, blues or dreadlocks (Kastner, 2017). This in turn can deepen racism because, on the one hand, the historicity and validity of Black people's and POC's experiences suffer a loss of meaning in this way. On the other hand, racist structures are also consolidated by the fact that white people benefit socio-economically from traditionally Black music and culture by singing blues or opening a hair salon themselves, while Black people remain financially disadvantaged (Kastner, 2017). Especially in the USA, economic inequality between white and Black people is still a serious problem today (Meschede, 2016). Black traditions and cultural practices of BiPOC thus seem difficult to separate from their historical, often discriminatory origins. That is why dreadlocks can never be "just a hairstyle", R'n'B is not "just music". Dreadlocks and R'n'B are exactly what they are because they have a historical and cultural meaning.


So, in summary, cultural appropriation is not just the adoption of certain traditional clothes or hairstyles, but in the process it solidifies socio-economic inequalities that are racist in origin.

Knowing about cultural appropriation and the meaning of wearing dreadlocks as a white person has, in my opinion, something to do with respecting the stories and realities of others' lives. Only with such a broadening of one's own perspectives can the Western world's focus on itself (known as Eurocentrism) which has grown over centuries, come to an end. When people propagate tolerance and inclusivity, as Maltzahn does, it also involves being aware of perspectives other than one's own.


In addition to discussing the history of dreadlocks and the concept of cultural appropriation, I am interested in precisely these other perspectives in this discussion. What do people with curly black hair have to say about the debate on dreadlocks and cultural appropriation?


My mother is the first person I ask about this. She often wears her frizzy hair braided, sometimes open. The whole debate about Maltzahn passed her by completely. I tell her about it, also about the reactions from the media world and the BiPOC community in the social media. She doesn't understand the fuss. "Everyone should wear what they want and what they feel like - as long as it does no harm" is her motto. She doesn't feel hurt or threatened by Maltzahn's dark blonde dreadlocks, or anyone else. During the conversation with her, I also get to thinking and realise: I know some white people with dreadlocks, but have never consciously perceived it as potentially discriminatory or alienating, although I was aware of the debate around cultural appropriation. After talking to my mother, I'm considering whether she might be right. If no one is actively offended, it's actually okay for people to style their hair however they want. Isn't it?


But what sounds so harmonious is actually more complex and complicated, I realise when I talk to my cousin. She also has frizzy hair. She tells me about people who grab her hair without asking, who look at her like a strange being. She tells me about insults she received at school because of her hair. White people, my cousin says, could never comprehend what it is like to be touched and gazed at in a slightly fascinated yet condescending way. The emotional suffering that Black people with frizzy hair experience in white societies is something white people will never be able to fathom. Therefore, she does not think that it is okay for white people to exoticise frizzy hair, to mimic traditional Black hairstyles and then receive compliments for it, while Black persons have to struggle for the same recognition. This emotional violation that my cousin describes is also found in the debate about cultural appropriation. Maybe it's really not okay for white people to wear dreadlocks and other Black hairstyles because while no one is physically hurt, emotional hurt can always occur and should be perceived as valid.


So there are different positions: white people with dreadlocks who, like Ronja Maltzahn, wear the hairstyle because of its aesthetics or supposedly political-ecological reasons and are not aware of any guilt, BiPOC with frizzy hair who are not bothered by it, and BiPOC with frizzy hair who feel attacked by white people with dreadlocks. But what about the position of Fridays For Future Hanover, actually? White people deciding for black people?


This view can also be criticised, writes Alice Hasters in DIE ZEIT (2019). The alignment of white people with the affectedness of the black population and the constant reference to it puts non-white people permanently in the position of a victim (Hasters, 2019). White people's awareness of cultural appropriation and the problems it brings is good and important. However, if you as a Black person are only reduced to the suffering you experience, and especially if it is always pointed out to you, it has something of paternalism about it. This seems to be the case with Fridays For Future Hanover and Ronja Maltzahn: it is a discussion among white people. The parts of the local group that can be found on social media are not BiPOC. This means that a primarily white political organisation has accused a white woman of discriminatory actions on behalf of the BiPOC community. And that again is discrimination in itself, in that white people are speaking for non-white people; in a way decicding about how and what BiPOC should be feeling in the current situation. So in the way Fridays For Future Hannover accused Ronja Maltzahn of cultural appropriation and racism, they themselves acted in a discriminatory way.

It seems unbelievable how many dimensions a post on Instagram can take on when you start to look into its background. The question of whether Ronja Maltzahn's hairstyle is appropriate for a climate demonstration or not, opens up the space for reflections on structural racism, historical oppression, emotionality, responsibility and paternalism in our contemporary Western society. The plurality of dimensions makes it clear that dreadlocks can never be "just a hairstyle", but also always represent a political symbol - regardless of whether the wearers are aware of this. The question of whether white people are allowed to have dreadlocks cannot be answered conclusively because of the many individual views and possible triggers. However, one should be aware of the discriminatory potential of the hairstyle if one wears dreadlocks as a white person and not shy away from dealing with the far-reaching significance of one's own hair. Hopefully Ronja Maltzahn is also aware of this by now.



Bibliography:


N.N. (2022, March 23). Fridays For Future lädt Musikerin wegen Dreadlocks von Demo aus. SPIEGEL Online. https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/fridays-for-future-laedt-musikerin-ronja-maltzahn-wegen-dreadlocks-von-demo-aus-a-631b6b83-9778-4a04-aa62-e3b85e713520 (Last access 10. May 2022).


N.N. (2022, March 24). Wegen Dreadlocks: „Fridays For Future“ lädt Musikerin Ronja Maltzahn aus. WDR Aktuelle Stunde. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QI7UEme1ttk (Last access 10. May 2022).


Hasters, A. (2019, December 23). More than a feeling. ZEIT Online. https://www.zeit.de/kultur/2019-12/rassismus-wut-trauer-gefuehle-diskurs-10nach8/seite-2 (Last access 15. May 2022).


Hoeder, C.-S. (2019, December 5). Ist es ok, „Dreadlocks“ zu sagen? RosaMag. https://rosa-mag.de/ist-es-ok-dreadlocks-zu-sagen/ (Last access 12. May 2022).


Jakob, A.-E. (2022, April 1). Wie es wirklich ist: bei Fridays For Future wegen seiner Haare ausgeladen zu werden. ZEIT Online. https://www.zeit.de/2022/14/ronja-maltzahn-fridays-for-future-dreadlocks?utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com (Last access 10. May 2022).

Kastner, J. (2017, October 15). Was ist kulturelle Aneignung? Deutschlandfunk.

https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/popkultur-debatte-was-ist-kulturelle-aneignung-100.html (Last access 12. May 2022).


Meschede, T. (2016, July 23). Reiche Weiße, arme Schwarze. ZEIT Online.

https://www.zeit.de/wirtschaft/2016-07/usa-weisse-schwarze-diskriminierung-oekonomische-unterschiede?utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com (Last access 12. May 2022).


Wulf, V. (2022, March 24). Filz gegen die Unterdrückung. Süddeutsche Zeitung. https://www.sueddeutsche.de/panorama/dreadlocks-weisse-geschichte-rastafari-rassismus-kolonialismus-1.5554027 (Last access 10. Ma 2022).






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