YWCA Southeast Wisconsin
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August 2017

By Leland Pan, Racial Justice Trainer, YWCA Southeast Wisconsin


About Your Hair: Race and Cultural Appropriation

The topic of race has always been a part of American sports, from Jackie Robinson breaking the color line of baseball to Tommy Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in support of the Black Power movement in the 1968 Olympics to Colin Kaepernick kneeling to highlight racist police brutality.

A story that might have gone unnoticed amidst the recent news of President Trump’s comments on athletes and their rebuttals was a piece written in The Players Tribune by Chinese American NBA basketball player Jeremy Lin. In it, Lin describes his decision to get dreads, a hairstyle most associated with people of African descent. He discusses his concerns with potential cultural appropriation and ends with, “I may not have gotten it right with my idea to get dreads. But I hope that this is a start, not an end, to more dialogue about our differences. We need more empathy, more compassion and less judgment. That takes actual work and communication. So let’s start now — please join me.”

Jeremy Lin is no stranger to racism. That was most highlighted when ESPN wrote headlines about him titled “Chink in the Armor”. I also appreciate Jeremy Lin’s openness to discussion about his experiences and racism: “But when it comes to more complicated topics — like racial discrimination, police brutality or the day-to-day difficulties of being a minority — sometimes people aren’t always as interested to go there. Taking the time and energy to ask about the things we don’t know may be messy — but we don’t really have a choice. We can’t let our divisions get worse.”

But, as a fellow Chinese American, I believe Lin is in the wrong with dreads. Non-Black people are culturally appropriative when they wear dreadlocks. First, dreads are deeply connected to Black resistance, donned by resistors against colonialism in Jamaica and Kenya. Second, Black people still face huge discrimination in employment, housing, policing, etc. and dreads are often part of that discrimination. It’s appropriative because it reinforces existing systems of racism (unlike, say, Black people straightening their hair) and it’s dismissive of the struggles Black people have and still face.

I felt the call to respond to Lin’s article because I think Asian Americans have a duty to stand up to all forms of racism, especially anti-Black racism. Many facets of our oppression, such as the model minority myth, are also connected to oppressing Black people. Many of our opportunities, such as overturning race-based quotas for immigration and the right to vote, are because of the work of Black civil rights activists. We’ve had a long history of standing with Black Americans, like Yuri Kochiyama working with Malcolm X, Grace Lee Boggs fighting for housing rights in Detroit, and African American support of reparations for Japanese American survivors of internment. We should continue that legacy.

So, to Jeremy Lin: I hope you move on from the dreads soon, but I think your attitude is exactly what’s needed from all of us if we want to be open to critique and adapt to be better people. And by better, I mean anti-racist.