Wednesday, April 1, 2015

It's Doesn't Make You as Bad Person to Dislike Dreadlocks

We interrupt this film blog for a serious message.  If you came here today for film criticism, film analysis or film history, I must report that my usual ongoing discussion of films has been suspended for a day.  It's not that this article is completely unrelated to films.  The following article will delve, in part, into the image that a Hollywood entertainer has to carefully design and maintain for their public appearances.  A prominent aspect of an entertainer's image is race.  But everything about race, including attitudes toward race and expressions of race, has gotten complicated and treacherous. 

We spend too much time and energy arguing about race.  No one with a bare amount of intelligence cares about a person's skin color.  At first, we mostly judge a person by the way they dress and the way they talk.  We evaluate, consciously and unconsciously, a person's various personal characteristics.  How do they carry themselves?  Do they listen to what I have to say or do they constantly talk over me?  When a long-term relationship develops, we do better to focus on the person's wit, honesty, dependability and compassion or their lack thereof.  Who cares about their skin color at this point?  I have seen diverse work groups easily adapt to working together.  Men and women having so many distinct qualities that are more interesting than skin color.  But we react differently to other races in a group context.  In general, self-interested people assembled in a political block are no longer people.  They are a snarling, yowling mob that wants to tear apart anyone who stands in their way.  The Internet has proven to be a dangerous outlet for this type of mob rule and mob hysteria.

Civilization demands that we assume a rational and measured approach to our differences.  Otherwise, we are surrendering to tribal impulses and behaving like savages.  It never fails to get ugly whenever tribalism kicks in.  Too many people feel compelled to assert their moral superiority with a furious display of primate chest-beating.  Conflict over the matter of racism has become the most convenient excuse for showing off in this way, but harm is caused by reckless and unfounded accusations of racism. 

When I was twelve years old, I was starting to get interested in girls.  One day, I was sitting with a group of friends.  I couldn't help but take notice of a girl who was visiting from another neighborhood.  I thought she was pretty and I wondered if a pretty girl like her could like a guy like me.  I was in the middle of saying something when the pretty girl sneered at me and asked why Italians always have to talk with their hands.  I felt humiliated.  For years, I always made sure when I was talking to keep my hands folded in my lap.  This was not the first time that I was mocked for my race and it was not the last. 

Many years later, co-workers would call me "Tony Soprano" and ask me if I had "whacked" anyone that week.  I admit that it irritated me more than it should have.  The recent PBS documentary series The Italian Americans aptly explored the struggle that Italians had assimilating into American life.  The biggest obstacle to the Italians' assimilation was the unfavorable prejudices that many held towards them.  So, no, I don't like racism.  But, today, the definition of racism has been expanded to an irrational, unworkable and harmful degree. 

People who work together in a social group cannot afford to be overly sensitive.  We need to be more accepting and understanding of other person's opinions and perspectives.  We need to accept some amount of racial tension as reasonable and inevitable.  We shouldn't attack every unfavorable race-related comment like Gallagher attacking a watermelon.

For the vast majority of people, racial tensions do not relate to skin color.  They relate to cultural differences.  We all have different tastes and values based on our culture.  How could that not create tension? 

Yes, Italians use their hands when they talk.  They regard this as an expressive and passionate way to communicate.  This is a cultural preference.  People of other races might believe that a person talking with their hands is unreserved and unmannered.  That's fine, too.  You don't have to like a person gesturing while they talk, but you need to tolerate it.  It's not as if it's doing you any harm.

We learned from a recent episode of Fashion Police that Giuliana Rancic is repulsed by dreadlocks.  Rancic was reviewing photos of Hollywood stars on the Oscars red carpet when she came upon a photo of Zendaya Coleman, a star of the Disney sitcom Shake It Up.

As you can see, the young black actress arrived at the Oscars with her hair arranged in artfully braided dreadlocks.  Rancic joked that she could imagine the actress smelling of patchouli oil and marijuana.  A lengthy post on Coleman's Twitter account slammed Rancic for the comment.  This set off a three-day firestorm.  The rabid Internet community could not have been more incensed if Rancic had called the actress "Brillo head."  It was an overreaction that is made even worse by the fact that these same people tend to overreact about something new every day.  Not surprisingly, the interpretations of Rancic's comment went in an extreme direction.  Some said that Rancic was saying that straight, silky Caucasian hair was superior to black people's rougher, curly hair.  Some accused Rancic of saying the black people's hair was dirty. 

I want to first say that attacking a hair style is vastly different than attacking a hair type.  The former relates to culture and the latter relates to race.  You don't have to like a black person's hair.  But, if you find a black person's hair to be too rough and kinky to your liking, you should probably keep it to yourself.  In either case, I don't know if the same sensitivity should be applied to dreadlocks.  Dreadlocks is an exotic and archaic hairstyle that is rightfully associated with patchouli oil and weed.  I am not sure Rancic's comment (which, for the record, was scripted by a staff writer) represents an all-out attack on black people.  As far as I know, a small minority of black people have ever had dreadlocks or have known anyone who has ever had dreadlocks. 

It later came out that the way that the show was edited took the comment out of context.  Rancic was trying to make the point that the hairstyle didn't suit Coleman, who had looked much better in the past with less radical and more high fashion hairstyles.  Rancic said in her defense that, at this point in time, the dreadlocks style is a bohemian statement that has nothing to do with race.   

Coleman may have had her own reason to feel outraged by the remark.  The actress, who has a black father and a white mother, may feel that her racial identity has become a distraction in her career.  She was accused of being too white when she was cast to play black singer Aaliyah in a biopic.  She was quickly replaced in the role by another actress, although she insisted that she dropped out of the project due to scheduling issues.  She wore dreadlocks to honor her black heritage (her father has worn dreadlocks for years), but she was caught off guard by this unexpected attack by Rancic.  Rancic indicated that the actress has a delicate frame and delicate features and the dreadlocks were, in contrast, "really heavy."  "It overwhelms her," Rancic said.  Was Rancic making a point that the hairstyle was too black for the light-skinned actress?  Or it could be that I, too, am overthinking this matter.

These issues, admittedly, can get complicated.   The Shaiva Nagas, ascetics of South Asia, once rubbed cow dung into their dreadlocks as part of a sacred ritual.  Should everyone have to tolerate dung-coated hair?  I wonder if Rancic would have gotten into trouble if she simply said that she imagined Coleman smelled like patchouli oil, which I understand has a nice scent.  Was it the weed reference that made it offensive?  Most of the people who attended the Oscars that night probably have smoked weed and think that weed is a good thing. 

In any case, let us not give too much importance to these dreadlocks, which were a simple fashion choice that Coleman had made for the evening.  The actress has been known to adopt eye-catching hairstyles for awards ceremonies.

Coleman showing up at an awards show with dreadlocks is no more significant than Miley Cyrus showing up at an awards show with blue hair.  It was meant to get the actress attention and it was not guaranteed that all of that attention would be positive.  It was not as if Rancic said that Coleman had an ugly nose or fat legs.  It was just an arrangement of hair.  For the record, Coleman was back to her normal hairstyle the next day.  Reports came out later that the dreadlocks had been fake hair extensions.  Blogger Sandra Rose wrote, "As a British woman born to Jamaican parents I agree that the remarks were offensive.  But even more offensive is Zendaya walking around wearing FAKE dreadlocks and then having the nerve to act insulted when white people call her out for being phony."  That's the problem about setting off a bomb, you can't always control who or what gets damaged in the blast.  Coleman was soon tired of answering questions on the subject.  She told an interviewer, "It's over. . . Let's let it go." 

I strongly suspect that Coleman's message on Twitter was written by a management representative.  If this is the case, I think that the writer who scripted Rancic's upsetting joke and the writer of Coleman's Twitter denunciation should meet face-to-face and get all of this controversy hashed out.

Don't get me wrong, I abhor the casual rudeness of Fashion Police and I would be happy if they took this show off the air, but this dreadlocks business was blown way out of proportion.  Racism is the belief that you have the right to segregate, dominate or oppress people of another race because you believe that your own race is biologically superior.  I don't know if a person saying they dislike dreadlocks meets the standards for racism.  An alternate definition of racism is a person expressing hatred or intolerance of other races.  That definition is too broad for my tastes.  You can go so far in your interpretation of racism that you become intolerant of another person's views and preferences. 

It would be great if we could feel nothing but love for one another, but man evolved in dangerously competitive environments and he was only able to survive by looking after himself and the others in his group.  The Walking Dead appeals to a large television audience because it taps into our time-tested group loyalties and our primal kill-or-be-killed instincts.  The series strips away the burdens and pretensions of civilized behavior and allows its characters to fiercely indulge their natural survival instincts.  Everyone outside of the group is the Other and poses a threat to their existence.  Nowadays, political party affiliations allow people to convert primitive hostilities to a socially acceptable form.  We can, in this way, see ourselves as part of a group and feel justified to attack everyone outside of that group.  If you are not part of our group, then you must be an enemy and we can destroy you.

What is the Other?  The Other is the Other.  Skin color provides a distinct marker but it is otherwise irrelevant.  I can't tell the difference between Danish people and Swedish people, but these two groups have been bickering for 900 years.

These are young Swedish ladies.

This is a young Danish lady.

Can you tell the difference?

But here is a list of the wars in which the two countries fought against each other:

The Dano-Swedish War (1470–1471) 
The Dano-Swedish War (1501–1512) 
The Swedish War of Secession (1521–1523) 
The Northern Seven Years' War (1563–1570) 
The Kalmar War (1611–1613) 
The Torstenson War (1643–1645)
The Second Northern War/Dano-Swedish War (1657-1660)
The Scanian War (1675–79) 
The Great Northern War (1700–21) 
The Theater War/Russo-Swedish War (1788–1789)
The Dano–Swedish War/Napoleonic War (1808–1809) 
The Dano-Swedish War/War of the Sixth Coalition (1813-1814)

War, in one form or another, is the nature of man.

Too many comments on the Internet manage to, as the headlines often say, "spark outrage."  It bothers me the most that this indignation never feels real.  It comes across as something else - maybe misplaced anger or maybe stress relief.  Rage can release built-up anger from past traumas.  A distressed person can make themselves feel better by inflicting their frustrations on others.  Rage increases the body's adrenal output, which dulls sensations of pain.

Let us return to the Oscars red carpet.  I find it odd that the Internet's many politically correct young commentators adamantly oppose potentially racist comments but think nothing of expressing unbridled hatred of their elders.  Every year, they complain bitterly about the many old people who attend the Oscars.  Andrew O'Hehir of Salon has spoke of "the creaky, crusty demographics of the Academy."  O'Hehir and others would ban this group from the show and the Academy if they had the power.  Ageist young people will not hesitate to say that an old person smells bad.  They don't say that they smell of patchouli oil and weed.  They say, bluntly, that they smell bad.  They don't really believe in treating everyone fairly.  Their message is simple: Screw old people.

But ageism is just as bad as racism.  The most terrible form of racism occurs when a person is denied a job or denied housing simply on the basis of their skin color.  But how many of these young people would deny a person a job based on the wrinkly texture of their skin or refuse to rent an old person an apartment because they assume that the person would make the apartment smell of Ben-Gay?  It is upsetting to see hatred between generations.  Hate is hate, but it is particularly disturbing to see hostility between a father and son.  This type of family infighting is nasty and perverse.  So, why is ageism socially acceptable and racism is not?  This makes political correctness too arbitrary to be taken seriously.

I talked to an old man the other day.  He said that he stopped watching football because he is repulsed by, in his words, "the long hair."  I didn't ask him to elaborate, but I can assume that he thinks that long hair looks ugly and maybe even dirty.  You know, it doesn't look too good to me, either.  That doesn't make me a bad person.  If I say that I prefer the old-fashioned, clean-cut football players, it doesn't mean that I prefer old-fashioned, white football players.

I am not a person who ever speaks in code.  I have a right to my personal taste in regards to hairstyles.  But who am I kidding talking about my preference in football players?  I could never relate to football.  A game more to my tastes is Trivial Pursuit.   

I want to end this article with a small bit of advice.  Excuse me if I come across as Woodsy Owl dispensing a public service message.  But my message is simple and it could be helpful.  If you think that someone has made a racist comment, hold your breath and count to ten.  Once you feel calmer, take the time to carefully consider the nature of the comment.  Do not erupt in protest unless you are sure that the comment is racist and it poses some sort of threat.  Our survival as a society depends on our ability to talk openly and calmly about our feelings and impressions on issues of race.    

I will talk about my personal feelings and impressions on race in the next installment of this article.

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