Weed, Patchouli, Privilege and Erasure

Racism colors current events. And in the words of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, we are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Plus, with social media connecting the world at button pushes, faux pas go from obscure to common knowledge.

This is how now-infamous Giuliana Rancic comments inspired immediate backlash. Rancic, an entertainment reporter of Italian ancestry, said of singer/actress Zendaya Coleman’s hairstyle at the Oscars, “I feel that she smells like patchouli oil … or weed.”

Coleman, a biracial black woman, sported faux dreadlocks at the Oscars. For those who don’t know, faux dreadlocks are hair extensions designed to look like naturally matted hair (also known as dreadlocks, locks or “locs”). Faux dreads gained popularity with people who want the look without the commitment to and relative permanence of the style in its natural form.

Coleman said that Lisa Bonet inspired her look. If we’re being real, Bonet inspired a lot of the coffee shop cuties and social media models we see, too.

Rancic’s comments evince a casual racism that is as prevalent as its forefathers, but more difficult for some to pinpoint because it’s covert. It’s coded. It’s about seemingly neutral topics, like hair. Except for black people, it’s not just hair. Hair is a cultural indicator. It can signify our ancestry, our personhood, our place in the world in which we were born.

Because of white supremacy and Eurocentric beauty ideals, ignorant people make our hair their problem, instead of their flat worldviews. Black women are encouraged not to wear our hair in natural hairstyles because it’s deemed unprofessional in a Western world.

Black girls are teased, punished and stigmatized in school for wearing natural hair. The U.S. Army even deemed braids, dreadlocks and twists “unauthorized hairstyles.” TSA, the folks responsible for airport security, routinely and systematically subject black women with natural hair to invasive hair checks for contraband.

TSA has checked my dreadlocks, which are real, more times than I can count. Fortunately, Black Twitter taught me to request that agents change their gloves prior to the checks and always to question why it’s happening. I’ve found that inconveniencing them, via a glove change request, and asking questions, has resulted in less invasive checks. Mainly they stop gripping my scalp and start patting my back down like a normal person.

Hair checks are interesting in the context of Rancic because she is Italian-American. Contemporary poking and prodding of black women (many who are already American citizens) at airports can be analogized with the poking and prodding of many Irish and Italian newcomers at immigration inspection port Ellis Island.

While both Irish and Italian people have assimilated into whiteness in America now, both groups experienced oppression for being different in the not-so distant past. This history makes Rancic’s comments more ironic. Essentially, now that your group is in the “in-crowd” your implicit biases about blacks can come through, eh? My critical race theory professor often said, “It ain’t no fun when the rabbit got the gun.”

Then there’s also the fact that Rancic lambasted Jersey Shore cast members as poor representations of Italian people. Rancic, and similarly situated media personalities, should remember this rule of thumb: Most people want sensitive and nuanced handling of their people.

America (and the world at large) loves black people. They conspicuously consume our music, food, clothing and rituals. They date, pursue, marry and adore us. Yet, our aesthetic is too often debated, when actual black people are involved, and celebrated when non-blacks co-opt our swag.

White girls, and whoever else, can tan their skin to a light caramel. They can braid, texturize, dreadlock, and swoop their hair. They can get butt injections, lip injections and wear doorknocker earrings. All our slang can fall off their tongues.

Part of living in a multi-cultural world is drawing inspiration from diverse beauty and global offerings. However, many of us are annoyed when others take our cultural capital, use it for their gain and subsequently displace us. It’s like aesthetic and actual gentrification. Cite your sources, yo.

To be fair, Rancic has since apologized twice for her comments. On Twitter, she claimed her comments were not at all about race. While many would beg to differ, most folks can appreciate a genuine apology. Her on-air apology translated as much more sincere.

We all make mistakes, but people of privilege should not keep making them the same way.


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