We seem to empathise more when a story is about an individual or a small group than when it is about a mass of people. The current news story about the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is a perfect example, and it has touched many.
The Million Hoodies campaign (#millionhoodies), whereby people can show where they stand on the needless killing of a hooded-top-wearing Martin by posting pictures of themselves in hooded tops, has been well received and supported, with icons like Muhammad Ali posting a picture on Twitter.
The teenager was murdered for what a simple hooded top represented. According to Martin’s as yet uncharged murderer, the top made him appear suspicious and dangerous. For some time, this item of clothing, when worn by a “particular” type of person, has rendered them subject to stereotyping and racial profiling in the United States and in Europe. And this has now culminated in murder.
In Africa, wearing a hooded sweatshirt doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean troubled youth, it doesn’t indicate that someone is up to no good - it’s simply another item of clothing.
When I watched footage of the London riots, the menace that the hoodie represented was apparent. Rioters were unidentifiable beneath their hoodies, baseball caps and bandanas. It contributed to the UK government’s told-you-so response at their failed attempts to ban apparel they felt promoted anti-social behaviour, claims that were largely disputed and that seemed to make hooded tops more of a must-have for rebellious teens.
There isn’t a country in or outside Africa that isn’t without groups being subjected to a negative social opinion. Included in these groups are youth sub-cultures that, based on one irrelevant item of clothing or hairstyle, are latched on to as manifestations of more complex problems.
The African equivalent of the hoodie is dreadlocks.
Dreadlocks originated in Africa, but modern day Africans don't see tradition or culture when they see someone with dreads.
While the popular form of the modern dreadlock has moved away from freeform dreads of the Maasai, the lingering restraint of colonial imperialism is still prevalent. The Maasai are the Maasai; anyone else sporting dreads is outside the norm, and we know what happens in a any society to people whose image choices place them outside the norm.
When you listen to some of Uganda’s most longstanding popular artists like Ragga Dee, Bebe Cool, Chameleone and Bobi Wine, a common factor is the inspiration they’ve drawn from Jamaican culture, for their music and personal style.
They may rap and sing in English and our local languages, but they also rap in Patois, creating Uganda’s very own dancehall music scene, complete with rival musicians, crews and fans. When the Ugandan dancehall scene began to grow in popularity, fans started to emulate the style of the culture as it was portrayed by the artists, and one element of this style was “locked” hair. In a country as conservative as Uganda, this wasn’t readily accepted. Women were rarely seen wearing trousers, shorts or short skirts, schoolgirls and boys keep their hair short and in its natural state, men usually wore dress shirts and dress shoes instead of t-shirts and sandals, so dreadlocks were out of the question.
Beenie Man and Chameleone
But the music powerfully communicated to its fan base, most of whom lived in the ghettos. Since the stereotype of people who lived in ghettos wasn’t - and still isn't - particularly positive, anyone wearing locks was seen as a trouble-maker, a marijuana user, a thief. Locks attached a person to a long list of social menaces.
Like most stereotypes created by the majority, certain accusations were warranted, but only on an individual basis. The police, however, with as large a blind spot to stereotypes as anyone else, responded with a heavy-handed approach, even for light misdemeanours, and having dreadlocks made you a target. The justice system was dealing with issues they were not familiar with, or that they couldn't be bothered to analyze, and chose to target what they could "see", overlooking social problems that fuelled the behaviour of some of the ghetto’s youth.
The association of dreadlocks with “troublesome” groups and drug use made it hard for traditional Ugandan families to simultaneously associate the style with anything positive. At the same time, the law of self-fulfilling prophecies came into play. When a group is targeted for a mix of truths and falsities, everything turns into one exaggerated reality, as we saw in the case of the youngsters associated with anti-social behaviour in the UK. The more people feared the troubled youths in their ‘hoodies’, the more “troubled” the youths became. The more people associated the Ugandan ‘rastas’ with petty thievery, misconduct and rebellion, the more rebellious they became.
Thankfully, this is slowly changing. Yes, the entertainment industry and creative fields are still where you’ll find most of Uganda’s “accepted” lock wearers, but that is the case in parts of the world that are far more liberal than Uganda. Would Obama have been elected president with a full head of locks, no matter how well styled? The same ‘no’ would apply to an African candidate for presidency. It is common for the west to point fingers at Africa for having “underdeveloped” or “unenlightened” reactions or traditional and excessively conservative cultural attitudes to certain things, but the west too has its own prejudices, some based on long-held untruths, others on newly created stereotypes. We are all just operating on different relevant timelines and cultural-difference maps. We didn’t ban the burqa or attempt to ban the hooded top; we don’t associate them with anything negative.
In a world filled with national stereotypes, we find our prejudices built on even the smallest and most insignificant details of a person, something as simple as a sweatshirt, a hairstyle, a music preference. Perhaps we can’t help but be prejudiced at some level, but prejudices should never be allowed to justify hateful or harmful behaviour.