Though Abel Tesfaye's (stagename: The Weeknd) music has won multiple Grammys and been nominated for an Academy Award, his hair is often the first thing that people bring up when they speak about him.
During a run-in with TMZ this week, for example, the 26-year-old Canadian singer fielded a number of questions about how he takes care of his "crazy hair." When asked about how often he washes his hair, Tesfaye stony response was "every day."
This seemed to baffle a number of TMZ's white employees who insisted that it was "impossible" that anyone with dreadlocks could wash their hair on a regular basis.
"I don't understand that," TMZ founder Harvey Levin admitted to his newsroom full of other bewildered white people.
It wasn't until a black reporter spoke up to explain to the "stupid white people" (his words) that a degree of common sense was introduced into racist conversation. "You wash your dreads every day because [the hair] already locks," the reporter said. "You can wash it as much as you want to."
When Levin asked why not knowing that about black hair made him a "stupid white person," the reporter pointed out that Levin and his co-workers were making assumptions about black people rather than asking legitimate questions. To its credit, TMZ has posted video of the exchange (embedded above) to its YouTube page where it's racked up tens of thousands of views.
But the light-hearted music tracked to the cringe-worthy minute of footage undercuts the fact the whole thing was patently racist.
There are a number of reasons as to why a white person with no familiarity with black hair might mistakenly assume that dreadlocks can't be washed, but one of the most obvious answer is the rise in popularity of white people with dreadlocks.
Vlogger and deadlock expert Franchesca Ramsey explained to me that on a technical level, it's possible for nearly anyone to dreadlock their hair, but different hair textures require different types of maintenance and care.
Generally speaking, the kinkier and more tightly curled your hair is, the easier it is to get it to hold into locks. This makes many forms of black hair more prone to locking compared to many white people, who tend to have thinner, straighter hair.
"Straight hair needs a lot of manipulation (backcombing and products for example) in order to matt," Ramsey told me. "And washing disrupts that process, leading many white people who are attempting to 'dread' their hair to wash less."
Backcombing involves taking a fine-toothed, metal comb and running it toward the scalp in order to encourage locking knots and locking.
In addition to combing, many white people find using dreadlock wax to be an effective means of training their hair to lock into place as they train their hair into shape over time. There's a spirited debate in the white dreadlock community about whether dread wax is good or not because of some of the problems it can cause, like stiff, crunchy hair and holding onto dirt and debris.
That difference, Ramsey told me, often leads people more familiar with white dreads to assume that black dreads are prone to the same limitations.
"Long story short, many white people see themselves as the standard and assume that everyone else functions that imaginary standard," Ramsey said. "They assume that everyone has to wash their hair less which isn’t the case for black people."
While many black people also use dreadlock wax and other products to maintain moisture in their hair, the difference in texture tends to make it much less necessary in order to maintain lock structure. In many instances, white dreadlocks can be washed and combed out with relative ease. The process is much more time and labor intensive for people with tight, curly hair.
As to why people (of all races) make fun of the way The Weeknd's hair looks, it all boils down to the assumptions we make about dreadlocks and the lines along which we judge black hairstyles. The Weeknd, Ramsey pointed out, has cultivated freeform dreadlocks that take their shape and form based on how black hair naturally grows, a look that many people aren't accustomed to seeing.
"People tend to have one very specific view of 'dreadlocks' which is either Bob Marley, or the stereotypical white hippie," Ramsey said. "In my experience white people seem to be very confused by locs so I’m not surprised that The Weeknd's hair would be next level confusing for them."