Can a white man have dreadlocks?

When Justin Bieber stepped out with a new mop of dreadlocks at the iHeartRadio Music Awards this week, the subject of whether white men can pull off dreads was already buzzing around the internet. 

A video posted to YouTube (above) showing a confrontation about dreadlocks between a black woman and a white man on a US college campus went viral this week. 

"You got some scissors?" the woman in the video asks.

"You're saying that I can't have a hairstyle because of your culture?" the white man with dreadlocks, Cory Goldstein, responds. "Why?"

"Because it's my culture," she says. "Do you know what locs mean?"

I believe they are powerful and helped amplify myself and helped me connect to this world.

Cory Goldstein

Heated exchange

Goldstein counters that dreadlocks were part of Egyptian culture, asking her: "Are you Egyptian? Nah, brah, you're not."

"Are you Egyptian?" she repeats back at him, to which he says, "No, but it doesn't matter," and starts to walk away.

"Wait, where is Egypt?" she asks. "Tell me." The woman uses her hands to block Goldstein's path up the stairs. When he says, "Yo, girl, stop touching me right now," she persists, mimicking his speech and pulling his sleeve.

"Come back, come back!" she says. "You put your hands on me, you'll learn."

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Goldstein exits the frame, shaking his head: "I don't need your disrespect."

Viral verdict 

The scene lasts no more than a minute, ending when the woman appears to notice the camerman for the first time and asks, "Why are you filming this?" He responds, "For everyone's safety."

San Francisco State University, where the video was filmed, said in a statement that the incident was being investigated. The school clarified that, contrary to title of the video, the individuals involved are not SFSU employees.

"University police were called to the scene of the incident when it occurred," the statement said. "San Francisco State University promotes the rights of the campus community to engage in free speech, but does not condone behaviour that impedes the safety or well-being of others."

The video, which has amassed more than three million views, has prompted a wave of responses, recalling the debates over microaggressions, political correctness and freedom of speech that overtook universities last fall.

Was it cultural appropriation for this white man to be sporting dreadlocks, a hairstyle popularised by Jamaican Rastafarians? Or was the woman's pointed disapproval another case of microaggression fever?

Equally puzzling was the video's theatrical quality. The man's initial responses sound almost rehearsed, and the woman is smiling throughout most of the encounter. Could the whole exchange have been staged?

Potential hoax?

The woman in the video as Bonnie "Bonita" Tindle, a cinematographer who directed a short film called The Things We Carry, about "the struggles of growing up black and female in America."

SFSU police say they have no reason to believe the video is a hoax and are proceeding with the investigation.

If the encounter was fabricated, it could be regarded as a brilliant performance art experiment, demonstrating how race-fueled controversy multiplies on the Internet. It has echoes of recent spats over Halloween costumes, as various school groups and celebrities were criticised for donning culturally appropriative attire or hosting ethnic-themed parties.

Since the revelation last summer that Rachel Dolezal, a one-time local NAACP leader in Washington state, had been altering her appearance to look African American – when she is, in fact, white – increased attention has also been drawn to the practice of "blackface" (not to mention "yellowface," "brownface" and so on).

As bad as blackface

Blackface, the act of putting black makeup on a non-black face, was traditionally used on minstrel show performers who mocked African American stereotypes for comic effect.

As a white man, was Goldstein effectively in blackface with his dreadlocks, and in turn, making an offensive statement about the woman's "culture"?

Reactions to the video have been divided. Some applauded the woman for taking a stand, while others criticised her approach.

"She was trying to make a point, and it seemed to me that the other person was not willing to engage with her," SFSU student Calder Marchman said.

Another student, Ashton Herrild,said that a witness said Goldstein may have verbally provoked her before the recording began.

The comments on the YouTube post were predominantly negative towards the woman. Facebook groups emerged calling on the woman to be fired or expelled.

Trial by comments

"It's honestly women like this that irritate me as an African American woman," one commenter wrote. "This is also a prime example that yes people of all races can be racist and that's what this woman is - a racist who had no right to bother that man at all."

Another commenter said: "Sweetie, if this white dude is 'guilty' for 'cultural appropriation' for wearing dreads, then every black dude and chick who flat-ironed and relaxed their hair to wear their hair in the latest fashions over the last 70 plus years are guilty of cultural appropriation as well."

The Root, a news site covering African American culture, took issue with how the woman chose to convey her message.

"There's a right way and a wrong way to confront someone you think is appropriating an aspect of your culture," writer Yesha Callahan noted. "You don't have to prove your point by touching people. That should be a given."

In 2013, The Root published a meditation on the issue called Dreadlocks: Should White People Have Them?

Expert opinion

The advice columnist, Jenee Desmond-Harris, concluded that it was fair for someone's white friend to wear "locs," but he should accept the inevitable raised eyebrows.

"You'll do him a disservice if you let him believe that he can borrow a traditionally black look, keep the style and be excused from the scrutiny," Desmond-Harris wrote.

In Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles, author Bert Ashe explains that dreadlocks likely appealed to Rastafarians because they were a rejection of Eurocentric ideals. They were an act of resistance.

Goldstein said on Wednesday that he filed a police report but is not looking to press charges. He identified himself as a student at the school.

He would be happy to have a discussion with anyone about his dreadlocks, but he would not be open to changing them, he said.

"At the time it just really felt like she was demeaning me and demoralising me," Goldstein said. "[The dreadlocks] are something that's part of who I am. I believe they are powerful and helped amplify myself and helped me connect to this world."

According to the Associated Press, the student who filmed the video has requested charges be filed against the woman.

The Washington Post​