Zendaya Hair Comment Sparks Debate on Appropriation

Photo Courtesy of Disney, Flickr Creative Commons

On Feb. 23, Giuliana Rancic, a commentator on the show “Fashion Police,” made a comment about Zendaya’s Oscar hairstyle, saying “I feel like she smells like patchouli oil or weed” while referring to the actress’s locks (commonly known as dreadlocks). Zendaya responded saying “There is already harsh criticism of African American hair in society without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair. My wearing my hair in locs on an Oscar red carpet was to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of color that our hair is good enough.”

“I think that they were very inappropriate and racist,” said Ramapo student Shaleah Peyton about Rancic’s comments. “It’s just not coincidental that Kylie Jenner had the same exact hairstyle and it was known to be hip and a great hairstyle but as soon as a woman of color… has dreadlocks in her hair it’s automatically related to marijuana. That’s not fair to Zendaya or anyone else who has that hairstyle including myself. I’ve had that hairstyle multiple times.”

In a Twitter apology, Rancic said “I was referring to a bohemian chic look. Had NOTHING to do with race and NEVER would!!!” However, even if Rancic’s comments had no racist intent, race does factor in. Locks are a hairstyle that is most often associated with the natural hair texture of people of African descent, and in many cases, people who are not of African descent cannot form their hair into locks naturally or without considerable effort. 

“Locks came to be because way, way back when, when Africans were brought here as slaves, they weren’t allowed to do their hair and therefore their hair would lock and people would call them ‘dreadful,’ and that’s why the term ‘dreads’ has come into existence,” explained Marissa Hatten, a sociology major at Ramapo and president of the Diversity Action Committee student group. “So locks do have a deeper meaning because the Rastafarian movement actually reclaims locks and they’re actually kind of like a countermovement against racial oppression and white supremacy.”

The triviliazation of this hairstyle with deep cultural significance is largely caused by cultural appropration. Cultural appropriation occurs when someone who is not part of a culture uses something significant from that culture for themselves. To some this may seem harmless, but cultural appropriation can have serious consequences for the members of the culture being appropriated. 

“It’s kind of ironic that you see this co-optation of these particular hairstyles where now it’s seen as ‘cutting edge,’ it’s seen as ‘chic,’ and I would say the most problematic thing is that it’s seen as ‘exotic,’” said Paul Reck, professor of sociology and member of the Diversity Action Committee, about the appropriation of locks. 

Even before Rancic’s comments were made, locks have been attacked as a hairstyle. At historically black college Hampton University in Hampton, Va., Dean Sid Credle upheld a rule banning male students enrolling in an MBA seminar class from having locks, considering them to be unprofessional. At an elementary school in Tulsa, Okla., a seven-year-old was filmed by news stations in tears after being sent home for her locks, which were banned by the school’s dress code. The U.S. military also bans locks along with other so-called “faddish,” “exaggerated” and “eccentric” hairstyles. 

“I think it’s very ironic though that traits that have served as the basis of discrimination are now being embraced and it’s perfectly fine when white women are adopting these traits,” Reck said. “So it’s kind of strange that the natural qualities are not only being co-opted but that the natural qualities are kind of demonized and then the unnatural appropration is viewed as acceptable.”

Rancic’s stereotype-fueled criticism of Zendaya’s natural hairstyle is likely not due to her own explicit racial bias, but instead an implicit bias caused by a culture in which the natural hairstyles of black people are both rejected and appropriated, creating the illusion that the comments made about them cannot be racist because they are actually referring to the “boho” look, a look created by the co-optatin of locks by white people who saw them as an opportunity to look “wild” and “exotic.” 

People need to think about the cultural significance of something before they choose to claim it as their own, whether it be a music genre, an article of clothing or a hair style. Participating in cultural appropriation can have unhappy consequences for the members of the culture one chooses to co-op. Respecting cultural boundaries is essential to respecting a culture as a whole.