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This dreadlock debate is a distraction

Giuliana Rancic is not a racist. At least, that’s what the Fashion Police presenter suggested late on Tuesday evening when she issued a full-throated apology to Zendaya Coleman, darling of the Disney channel.

Apparently, Rancic was doing her best to fill Joan Rivers’ sardonic stilettos when she quipped that Coleman’s new faux-dreadlocks made the starlet look like she “[smelled] like patchouli oil”. Or weed. You know. Because, Bob Marley.

Once news of Rancic’s joke hit social media, however, very few people were laughing, least of all Coleman. The 18-year-old delivered an impassioned rebuke, pointing out the real problem with Rancic’s comments: “There is a fine line between what is funny and disrespectful,” Coleman shared on Twitter. “To say that an 18-year-old young woman with locs must smell of patchouli oil or ‘weed’ is not only a large stereotype but outrageously offensive.”

Rancic initially tweeted Coleman a half-hearted apology, claiming her jab at the teen’s hair “had nothing to do with race”. But Black Twitter – the social network’s proverbial cool table – wasn’t having it. The response was swift and decisive. One popular user labelled the presenter’s observation “racist and xenophobic”, while another called it “disgusting”. By Tuesday night, Rancic’s name had been mentioned in more than 40,000 tweets, and the overwhelming majority of the comments were bad. Real bad.

Even celebrities piled in. Rancic’s Fashion Police co-host, Kelly Osbourne, threatened to walk off the show because she doesn’t “condone racism”, and the Grammy award-winning singer India Arie took to her blog to defend Coleman, and her hair. “I’m not calling Giuliana Rancic a RACIST…but OF COURSE it has to do with RACE,” the singer wrote.

“To say it has ‘Nothing to do with race’…THAT’S why people get mad.” Arie added: “It’s offensive. It has a racist edge. But also it’s also just off base. WAY off base.”

As the condemnation of Rancic’s misguided remarks became even more heated, and the demand for a more formal apology from Rancic grew, I couldn’t help but watch in amazement, and dismay, as people worked themselves into a tizzy over yet another obtuse comment from a celebrity. I fully understand why many chose to critique Rancic’s remarks. Her words disparaged not only Coleman but also an entire swath of people with Afro-textured hair who are often marginalised by mainstream (read: white) beauty ideals. Moreover, as an African-American woman with a kinky mane, I have often felt frustrated, annoyed, and othered by those who view black hair as less acceptable, unruly, or unattractive simply because it isn’t straight and blonde.

So I get it: Rancic was wrong. However, at times I wish we wouldn’t take the bait, because losing our collective cool over the narrow-minded utterances of a celebrity is just a distraction. For all the wonderful conversations Twitter has sparked about race, gender, religion, and politics, the social network is rife with distractions masquerading as righteous indignation. An errant remark by a politician, a clumsy statement by a TV presenter, or a racially charged joke by anyone with a platform can quickly become a topic of national, or even international, conversation. But should it?

In 1975, Toni Morrison gave a powerful speech about the effects of racism on black artists and writers: “It’s important to know who the real enemy is and to know the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over your reason for being,” Morrison told students at Portland State University.

“Somebody says you have no language, so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

Morrison’s argument – that there will always be one more offensive remark – sums up my thoughts on the cycle of “outrage”. Though some conversations, such as discussing the problematic bits of actress Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech, are certainly worth having, constantly reacting to every single microaggression is not only a waste of time, but also serves to reinforce the myth of the superiority of white opinions and ideals over all others.

Black folks are used to residing on the margins. We’re constantly left out of race-neutral, “colour-blind” conversations because white remains the default in many societies. And while this is unfair, as Morrison notes, constantly trying to prove our worth and explain our reason for being is a waste of time.

Though Rancic’s comments about Coleman’s hair were stupid, closed-minded and painfully stereotypical, they don’t actually matter, and neither does her apology.

What matters is that people of colour centre ourselves in the conversation and continue to go about the business of living, thriving, loving, creating, dressing, and styling our hair however we see fit. Because, as Morrison explained to those students 40 years ago: “A prison is erected when one spends one’s life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits. And you don’t have to do it any more.”

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