The Video Music Awards – an exercise in red carpet politics where victory over your “frenemy” is sweeter than receiving an award. Stars fight tooth and nail to get their soundbites in the headlines, and if you can drape your dig in professed moralism, that’s even better. Did Miley Cyrus think about the historical and socio-political context in which she was wearing dreadlocks before reaching a considered conclusion that the hairdo was acceptable? Somehow I doubt it. However, her act does raise several of important issues.
The first problem is the question of “opting in” and “opting out”. When it was revealed that Rachel Dolezal, an NAACP leader, identified as black despite being born to white parents, the most important criticism was that unlike others, she had chosen black as her racial identity. This means she could never fully appreciate the experience of a person who was born a particular race. Dreadlocks, though perhaps less severe, present a similar case. While they hold great cultural significance, cultural fashions are often practical as well as artistic; braiding ones hair into ropes arose as an attractive way of managing natural afros. Miley was not only trespassing on a culture to which she did not belong, but wearing a style of which she had no ‘need’ owing to her naturally straight hair.
The case of hair is a particularly interesting one, and we can take it a step further – off the red carpets and to the world of work. Experiments have proven that black women who braid their hair are far more likely to be offered a job than those who do not. The afro is seen as less professional and gives an disadvantage in interviews. This means that some women have to braid their hair not just to manage it but for the sake of their career. These issues likely escaped Miley’s consideration, and herein lies the problem. Can Miley happily attach and detach dreadlocks when she hasn’t lived and breathed the experience of the race from which they originate?
More problematic still, black culture has a long history of only being taken seriously and becoming popularised after white appropriation – jazz music perhaps being the most notable example. Pertaining to hair, when the black singer Zendaya Coleman wore dreadlocks, they were described as “looking like they might smell of weed” by actress Giuliana Rancic. When Kylie Jenner and Miley Cyrus sported dreads, they weren’t attacked for the look itself, only for its implications.
Granted, these are problems; yet, many people consider the backlash to be disproportionate and misguided. In an increasingly globalised world, the pooling of cultures should be celebrated. In the twenty-first century, artists and designers should be able to draw on a rich cultural diversity available to them without fear of criticism. Pooling mankind’s creative resources doesn’t necessarily individual cultures’ dilution. For example, the black pride movement, far from being undermined, is only strengthened by outside admirers of black culture.
This approach does not come without caution. The wounds from civil rights abuses are still raw – and still evident today. Therefore, fashion must be designed and worn with respect and understanding, and as an appreciation of culture rather than a flippant bid to grab headlines. This is an inherently nebulous notion, and can only ever be subjective. It would be a great shame if as a society we become conditioned to see a person from one race wearing something associated with another as wrong. Miley Cyrus is not the ideal ambassador. In some ways she represents fluidity; with her sexuality, her gender, her fashion, and now her culture, she has shown a disregard for boundaries. However, such fluidity must be underpinned by respect and understanding. To begin the process of normalising culture-sharing, BME celebrities with more gravitas than Cyrus can wear fashions from other cultures, so that the problems of white historical oppression and attention-seeking are removed. If this can be achieved respectfully, the mixing of cultures could and should prove a positive and powerful force in our world today.
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