So … I have dreads now.
And you probably have some questions and comments. I definitely want to hear them.
But first, really quick, I hope I can take you back through my journey to get them.
I never thought I’d ever think so much about hair. Honestly, at first I was surprised anyone would care what I did with my hair. When I started growing it out a few years ago in Charlotte, it was just something I was doing with six of my family members and friends. It was meant to be fun, and to be an expression of freedom.
I didn’t really plan for it to be anything more than that.
Then I kept going with it and it started to become … a thing. Looking back, I can see why my hairstyles turned some heads. (What was I thinking here?) But I liked how the process of changing my look actually made me feel more like myself again. I realized that in the years since Linsanity, I had spent a lot of time in a box, worrying about other people’s opinions on what I should and shouldn’t be doing. I wanted to stop basing my decisions so much on what strangers or critics might say about me. It was cool how something as simple as how I wore my hair could pull me out of my comfort zone and make me feel more free. Before I got older and had a family and kids and all of that, I wanted to be able to say to myself, Who cares what anyone else thinks? For me, the different hairstyles became a fun way to do that.
People definitely had a lot of opinions about my hair. A lot of people didn’t like what I was doing — they sometimes questioned my judgment. The loudest person in this camp was my own mom. At one point, I even challenged myself to rock a double ponytail (I know, I know) just to test whether I was truly past the point of obsessing over outside approval. And yeah, maybe the whole thing seemed like it was a stunt to get attention. I can understand that view … even if I knew that it wasn’t my real motivation. Over time it stopped bothering me when people made fun of me — the whole point was for me to enjoy being myself, no matter the reaction.
There was one type of response, however, that made me pause. With my other hairstyles, the worst thing people said about them was like, “Dude, that looks dumb.” But I didn’t care too much. I was doing it for me.
But with dreads, I came to understand that it was different.
Friends would say things like, “Bro, what about appropriation?”
I’ll be honest: At first I didn’t see the connection between my own hair and cultural appropriation. Growing up, I’d only ever picked from one or two hairstyles that were popular among my friends and family at the time. But as an Asian-American, I do know something about cultural appropriation. I know what it feels like when people get my culture wrong. I know how much it bothers me when Hollywood relegates Asian people to token sidekicks, or worse, when it takes Asian stories and tells them without Asian people. I know how it feels when people don’t take the time to understand the people and history behind my culture. I’ve felt how hurtful it is when people reduce us to stereotypes of Bruce Lee or “shrimp fried rice.” It’s easy to brush some of these things off as “jokes,” but eventually they add up. And the full effect of them can make you feel like you’re worth less than others, and that your voice matters less than others.
So of course, I never want to do that to another culture.
But I had never really deeply considered how something as seemingly personal as my hair — as an Asian-American NBA player — could affect anyone else.
Which brings me to the dreads.
Actually, it all started with braids back in Charlotte — not dreads yet. I didn’t know much about braids, but Kemba helped me out. He even lent me one of his do-rags because I had no idea how to care for my braids or where to get a do-rag.
When I got to the Nets, the conversation continued. When I first signed in Brooklyn, I remember talking to Rondae about hair. He told me he would grow his hair out with me — and that he’d get dreads with me. One time, Caris chose my braid design when I wasn’t sure what to get. Before this season, D-Lo, DeMarre and I discussed what the process of getting dreads is like — how painful the beginning process is, whether you could still rock a hat, how to maintain them, things like that.
I still wasn’t sure. A recent conversation I had with Savannah Hart, a Nets staff member who’s African-American, really resonated with me. I told her about my thought process — how I was really unsure about getting dreads because I was worried I’d be appropriating black culture. She said that if it wasn’t my intention to be dismissive of another culture, then maybe it could be an opportunity to learn about that culture.
Savannah introduced me to Nancy Moreau — my kind and amazing braider from the All Hair Matters Salon in Rockland County — who did my hair when I first got to Brooklyn. Nancy is already well-known around the Nets practice facility for doing hair for myself and the Nets staff, and the players and their children. And Nancy gave me another push to go for dreads.
I took some time to think about it but still had reservations. I asked Rondae if he’d be willing to get dreads with me and he said, “Bro, I’ve been growing my hair out for you. Let’s do it.” So this weekend, Rondae and I got our hair dreaded — for eight hours straight.
Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune
At the beginning of this article, I said I wanted to hear what you think. I truly do.
Because honestly, I may be wrong here. Maybe one day I’ll look back and laugh at myself, or even cringe. I don’t have the answers. But I hope the thing you take away from what I’m writing is not that everyone should feel free to get braids or dreads — or that one gesture can smooth over the real misunderstandings that exist in our society around race and cultural identity. Not at all.
This process started out about hair, but it’s turned into something more for me. I’m really grateful to my teammates and friends for being willing to help me talk through such a difficult subject, one that I’m still learning about and working my way through. Over the course of the last few years and all these hairstyles, I’ve learned that there’s a difference between “not caring what other people think” and actually trying to walk around for a while in another person’s shoes. The conversations I had weren’t always very comfortable, and at times I know I didn’t say the right things. But I’m glad I had them — because I know as an Asian-American how rare it is for people to ask me about my heritage beyond a surface level.
It’s easy to take things that we enjoy from other cultures — that’s one of the coolest things about a melting-pot society like ours. But I think we have to be careful that taking doesn’t become all we do. With all the division, political turmoil and senseless violence in our society right now, we need to talk to each other more than ever.
To listen to the real concerns of someone from a different background — and not just their everyday, superficial experiences — that’s pretty uncomfortable. After Linsanity, for instance, a lot of people were excited about celebrating the underdog who happened to be a minority — which is great. But when it comes to more complicated topics — like racial discrimination, police brutality or the day-to-day difficulties of being a minority — sometimes people aren’t always as interested to go there.
Taking the time and energy to ask about the things we don’t know may be messy — but we don’t really have a choice. We can’t let our divisions get worse.
Again, I may not have gotten it right with my idea to get dreads. But I hope that this is a start, not an end, to more dialogue about our differences. We need more empathy, more compassion and less judgment. That takes actual work and communication. So let’s start now — please join me.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this … now I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to leave a comment or question on any of my social media platforms.