Jeremy Lin’s Dreadlocks and Defining Cultural Appropriation

Prior to his season-ending injury, Jeremy Lin was in the news for getting dreadlocks. The Nets point guard even wrote an op-ed about his decision and its relation to cultural appropriation.

Brooklyn Nets players Jeremy Lin and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. (Photo: Twitter/JLin7)
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Prior to his season-ending injury, Brooklyn Nets point guard Jeremy Lin was in the news for sporting dreadlocks. 

Although dreadlocks appear in various cultures, ancient and modern, and have been embraced for different reasons, the hairstyle is most popularly associated with Black culture in the U.S.

Lin, whose sensational 2011-2012 season with the Knicks began the widespread expression Linsanity, came under fire from former NBA star Kenyon Martin for “wanting to be Black.”

“Do I need to remind this damn boy his last name Lin? Like, come on, man. Let’s stop it with these people. There is no way possible he would’ve made it on one of our teams with that (expletive) on his head. Come on, man, somebody need to tell him, like, ‘All right, bro, we get it. You wanna be Black.’ Like, we get it. But your last name is Lin,” Martin said in videos published online.

Lin, a Christian, responded to Martin’s comments with grace and denounced racist remarks lobbed at the former player by his Asian fans. Lin, the NBA’s first American player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, also pointed to Martin’s Chinese tattoos as “a sign of respect.”

In an article for The Players’ Tribune, Lin explained his hair choice and stated that it wasn’t his intention to offend:

I’ll be honest: At first I didn’t see the connection between my own hair and cultural appropriation. Growing up, I’d only ever picked from one or two hairstyles that were popular among my friends and family at the time. But as an Asian-American, I do know something about cultural appropriation. I know what it feels like when people get my culture wrong. I know how much it bothers me when Hollywood relegates Asian people to token sidekicks, or worse, when it takes Asian stories and tells them without Asian people. I know how it feels when people don’t take the time to understand the people and history behind my culture. I’ve felt how hurtful it is when people reduce us to stereotypes of Bruce Lee or “shrimp fried rice.” It’s easy to brush some of these things off as “jokes,” but eventually they add up. And the full effect of them can make you feel like you’re worth less than others, and that your voice matters less than others.

So of course, I never want to do that to another culture.

Various voices weighed in on whether or not Lin’s hair choice was indeed cultural appropriation and offensive to African Americans.

While many people may believe cultural appropriation is wrong, not everyone necessarily has the same understanding of what cultural appropriation actually is. Opinions are extremely polarized regarding the subject, which makes it difficult to even know where to begin.

Defining Cultural Appropriation

Faithfully Magazine turned to two experts for clarity on the subject.

Dr. Olufunmilayo B. Arewa is a law and anthropology professor at the University of California Irvine and has written on the topic of cultural appropriation as it relates to law and the history of music in the United States. Dr. Erich Hatala Matthes is an assistant professor of philosophy at Wellesley College who has written on the topic from a philosophical perspective.

Both Drs. Arewa and Matthes answered a series of questions about defining cultural appropriation and how we can address it in our own interpersonal interactions and as a society.

With the Halloween season approaching, this exchange also proves especially critical. Several colleges and universities have issued warnings and offered “cultural appropriation workshops” to educate students about the dangers of offending through “Halloween costumes that are based on ethnic, racial, religious, gender, ability and other cultural stereotypes.”

The interviews, conducted over the phone with Arewa and via email with Matthes, have been edited for clarity.

What is cultural appropriation? What is the best way of defining it?

Arewa: Before we talk about “cultural appropriation,” we should talk about “cultural borrowing.” We all borrow—it’s a part of human society. There are many benefits to it. There’s a whole spectrum [of cultural borrowing], but there’s a point [on the spectrum] where there is cultural appropriation.

Matthes: Cultural appropriation is a complex phenomenon that … is generally understood as the use of cultural elements such as stories, styles and objects by “outsiders” to the culture in question.

What factors or complexities make it difficult to recognize instances of cultural appropriation?

Arewa: We can’t stop and shouldn’t stop people from doing [“cultural appreciation”]—that is, a legitimate and helpful form of cultural borrowing. But we need to think more carefully about two types of uses: 1) commercial exploitation with pervasive uses of single [cultural] sources without compensation or recognition, and 2) demeaning uses, such as blackface.

Matthes: [Defining cultural appropriation] depends on differentiating cultural insiders from cultural outsiders, which can be a tricky task given that culture itself is dynamic and individual cultures and cultural groups can be difficult to rigidly define.

Where does intention or motivation fit into the conversation? For example, Jeremy Lin made claims that he did not intend cultural appropriation with his dreadlocks.

Arewa: Intention is good, but you have to see the entire context. We live in a world of diverse choices of how we present ourselves. We can’t take our decisions out of context. … [The question you need to ask is] ‘What’s the point you’re trying to make?’ Good intentions aren’t everything. Especially in this day and age, you can’t be clueless about context and history.

Matthes: This is a common claim in cases of cultural appropriation. While intention can certainly play a role in how we assess the blameworthiness of a person, it’s not clear that it mitigates the wrongfulness of the act itself. Lin’s intention doesn’t necessarily make his actions any less harmful and/or offensive to Black Americans, and I certainly don’t think respectful intentions are sufficient to render a case of cultural appropriation benign.

What do you think is the most productive way to address cultural appropriation in our society?

Arewa: Becoming educated and educating others is important, but so also is having civil conversations. We need to recognize that there are gray areas and that there are various perspectives. … We can have a random poll and have different answers on whether someone thinks a certain instance is cultural appropriation or not. We can use events [like Jeremy Lin’s hair] to have a discussion. … Shaming doesn’t help in these situations, especially if someone is trying to show appreciation for a culture. But, we can have civil conversations with people and say things like, “Some might see what you’re doing as problematic.” … In the commercial context, I think the way forward is to have norms for compensation and attribution to prevent commercial exploitation of certain cultures… For example, African Americans were excluded for opportunities for playing certain kinds of music, but Whites were able to borrow [African-American] music and make a profit off of it. This legacy of exclusion makes it more complex and shows us the need for developing models for compensation and attribution.

Matthes: The most productive way of addressing cultural appropriation in ideal terms is to eliminate the background inequalities that make cultural appropriation harmful in the first place. Since that’s unfortunately not likely to come to pass anytime soon, a more practical approach is for those individuals who self-identify as outsiders to a culture to think carefully about how they engage with that culture, and listen carefully to cultural insiders about the impact of their actions.

Concluding Thoughts

What is clear from both Drs. Arewa and Matthes is that cultural appropriation is not as black-and-white as many make it out to be. There are complexities that make it difficult to identify, and opinions are as widespread as the various forms of cultural borrowing that exist on a daily basis in our society.

Yet, their responses suggest we should be quick to listen and slow to speak, willing to have a civil conversation on these topics knowing that there are many gray areas. Even for those who make glaring and obviously demeaning instances of cultural appropriation, the most effective way to change hearts and minds isn’t through public shaming, demonization or vitriolic comments on social media. We are still called to treat people as people—as wrongheaded or offensive as they may be.

Photo by Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious


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