Comedian rejected for shows after dreadlocks deemed ‘cultural appropriation’

MONTREAL — An aspiring Montreal comedian has been told he cannot take part in shows at a university bar because his dreadlocks are a form of cultural appropriation.

The Coop les Recoltes, a bar and solidarity co-operative at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal, confirmed on Facebook its decision to exclude Zach Poitras, who is white, because of his hairstyle. Poitras, denied a spot at the Snowflake Comedy Club and another evening of “engaged humour,” declined comment on the situation.

The bar is operated by the UQAM branch of the Public Interest Research Group, which focuses on environmental and social issues. In its Facebook statement, the co-operative says its mission is to be “a safe space, free of relationships of oppression.” It describes cultural appropriation as a form of violence.

“We will not tolerate any discrimination or harassment within our spaces,” it says. It defines cultural appropriation as when “someone from a dominant culture appropriates symbols, clothing or hairstyles that come from historically dominated cultures.”

It adds that wearing dreadlocks is “a privilege” for a white person, whereas a black person with the same hair “is going to find himself refused access to job opportunities or spaces (apartments, schools, parties, sports competitions, etc.)”

Even if the person wearing dreadlocks is not racist himself, the group adds, the chosen hairstyle “conveys racism.” It calls cultural appropriation “a form of passive oppression, a privilege to be deconstructed and in particular a manifestation of ordinary racism.”

Last summer, American actor Zac Efron was accused of cultural appropriation after posting a photo of himself with dreadlocks on social media along with the caption, “just for fun.” Canadian singer Justin Bieber faced similar criticism in 2016 when he posted photos of himself with dreadlocked blond hair.

Greg Robinson, a UQAM professor specializing in black history, compared the wearing of dreadlocks by whites to the widely denounced practice of actors wearing blackface to portray characters of colour.

“What I mean is that it is whites who dress up as blacks to make fun of them,” he said, adding that even when the intention is not mockery but embracing another culture, one has to be careful.

“It’s like the N-word,” Robinson said. “Blacks can use it among themselves, but if someone from outside uses it, even if he wants to be like blacks, among blacks, there is still an aspect that remains rooted in history.”

The Coop les Recoltes did not respond to an interview request.

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