By Staff Writer Samantha Wahl.
This past Thursday, UMass Dartmouth students gathered together in the Unity House to discuss a controversial and timely question: “Should white people stop wearing Black hairstyles?”
The event was jointly hosted by two on-campus organizations: Curly in College and the House of Deliberations. Curly in College encourages young African-Americans to love themselves and their natural hair.
On the Curly in College website, Ashley G. Scott (the founder of the national Curly in College campaign) puts it this way: “[we’re] committed to supporting and empowering students who are bold enough to rock their natural hair on campus.”
House of Deliberations (HoD), on the other hand, is a group founded by UMassD student Eric James. James, a senior crime and justice studies major, sees HoD as a respectful, orderly place for students to find their voice on controversial issues. “It’s a platform for different ideas to flourish,” he says.
With Curly in College’s focus on the natural-hair experience and HoD’s focus on civil debate, it is no wonder that they chose to collaborate on this meeting.
In an era where terms like “cultural appropriation” are just beginning to become part of the national conversation, and is such a hotly debated issue, it would be easy to assume that the discussion that night would be tense. But that was not the case.
HoD is an organization well used to controversial discussions, and the format for this one was carefully planned.
In HoD meetings, only one person is ever allowed to speak at a time. Those who wish to contribute raise their hands and are put on a “speaker list.” Once their name comes up on this list, they have some time to speak. To preserve HoD’s status as an open forum, each speaker is timed by a moderator.
Tonight, the discussion moderator is Shaunia Bronson, UMD student and co-founder of HoD. If a speaker goes on too long, Bronson warns them to wrap things up by swinging a mallet against a box; the more mallet swings in a row, the faster a speaker needs to wrap up their argument.
With the rules laid out, the evening opens with a poll to indicate whether they agree or disagree with the night’s main question. From there, people from different sides can speak. Tonight, the discussion begins with those who had strongly agreed that white people should stop wearing Black hairstyles.
When James first askes for a volunteer to kick off the conversation, the room (which had been buzzing a moment ago) goes silent. “Come on,” he encourages with a backward glance at the poll results. “There’s at least ten of y’all.”
We work hard to share information that makes life easier for students who are bold enough to rock natural hair in a challenging world.” The
UMD chapter is headed by president Destiny Miles, who is a senior psychology and criminal justice major.
The crowd chuckles, and hands begin to go up.
For about an hour, the crowd goes back and forth. The atmosphere is relaxed to the point that the room buzzes sometimes with conversation; when this happens, the e-boards of both Curly in College and HoD work together to steer the conversation back to the matter at hand.
The debate itself is interesting, with people from both sides speaking respectfully and clearly into the night.
Sometimes speakers will respond directly to each other, and natural tangents will come up as people state their views. One of these tangents involves the treatment of Black hair in the U.S. throughout history, and how that informs the idea of culturally appropriating hairstyles now.
It’s during one of these sub-conversations that student Mavis Dwobeng speaks about internalization within the Black community that black hair is inferior: “We don’t understand our own hair. If I wear my natural hair to a huge event, something really important, other Black people are going to look at me like… ‘She can’t even get a weave done or look nice.’ They don’t look at it like it’s your hair that you actually wanna wear.”
It’s a nuanced point: hairstyles like dreadlocks, box braids, and other protective styles, have historically been looked down upon. They are now sometimes embraced by White people.
At the same time, there can still be a stigma around Black hairstyles when worn by Black people. Ironically, the situation is not black and white; the question of the night is a nuanced and complex one, and the animated discussion reflects that.
So, should White people stop wearing Black hairstyles? The group does not reach a unanimous answer. Then again, it isn’t meant to.
The purpose of UMD’s HoD is not to reach unanimous decisions, but to offer a space in which true exchange can take place. Perhaps Eric James says it best: “We want to make sure that everyone can say what they have to say… get what they have to say out.”
PHOTO COURTESY: HOD AND CURLY IN COLLEGE