Beyond the Locks

Hair may be just fashion to some, but to others, it is a way to represent culture and history.

Last week, after the Oscars, E! News anchor Giuliana Rancic sparked controversy when she said that Zendaya Coleman’s dreadlocks looked like they smelled of “patchouli oil” and “weed” on the program called “Fashion Police.”

Coleman responded to Rancic’s comments via Twitter saying the statements were “ignorant slurs and pure disrespect.”

In reality, the controversy was not about a hairstyle choice. It was about people of color—African Americans in this case – and the way they express their culture.

Several people voiced their opinions on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, often saying they do not see why Rancic’s comment was a big deal. They are unaware that the comments come from racial stereotypes that have negative effects on the black community.

“But when I looked up patchouli oil it didn’t reference black people, it said it was a reference to hippies [who] use it to cover up the smell of a no baths and weed,” Facebook user Susan Teran commented on Feb. 27. “How did it get racial? She was talking about the dreads.”

“Zendaya acts like a drama queen,” Facebook user Lorrie Taylor-Garcia commented. “Get over yourself.”

English and American studies professor at the University of Richmond, Bert Ashe, appeared on NPR Boston to talk about Rancic’s comments and express his thoughts on the issue.

“Dreadlocks is the sort of hairstyle that provokes comments, it provokes reactions, it provokes the sorts of stereotypes that Racic unfortunately used,” Ashe said.

He explained that these stereotypes come from the connections between dreadlocks and Rastafarians in Jamaica, where they began. These perceived connections were extended to marijuana, which Rastafarians used to make money, and finally to reggae music as it became more popular, where these connections were solidified.

Chair of the Africana studies department at California State University, Long Beach Maulana Karenga said via email that people do not see how offensive their comments can really be.

“People in power or in privileged and advantaged positions hardly ever interrogate and criticize themselves, not to mention condemn themselves,” Karenga said.

Coleman’s response to the comments were dignity-affirming, but were doing much more than just admiring black hair, they were “a reaffirmation of the strength, beauty and dignity of Black people,” Karenga said.

Rancic, who later apologized, meant to poke fun at Zendaya, but her comment ended up criticizing an entire ethnic group.

Some may think that those offended by the comments are being dramatic or playing the race card, but they are not.

People are so blinded by their own preconceived notions that they do not question what they think or where those thoughts come from.

“We can only persuade narrow-minded people to think differently about locks and Black hair in all forms if we can convince them to think differently and more ethically and humanely about Black people, themselves,” Karenga said in an email.

The issue is not really about Zendaya’s hairstyle at the Oscars; it is about the much larger problem of racial stereotypes, which perpetuate racial inequalities.

“Whatever small reforms and adjustments we make in instances like these, the larger problems of systemic racial domination, deprivation and degradation must be effectively addressed,” Karenga said.

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