This is a complex issue that should be considered. Not all black people agree on this matter. I personally feel that people who are not black should not refer to their hair as dreadlocks. Matted hair has been part of almost every culture, dreadlocks are part of Caribbean and African cultures specifically. Read more about the issue and my thoughts on it below.
Are Dreadlocks Appropriation? Yes? No? Maybe?
If you are reading this chances are you have already formed an opinion on the subject. Rather you think that dreadlocks are appropriation or not, I respectfully ask you to read until the end. I am not writing to change your mind, although that may happen, rather I seek to examine this issue, the complex history that has created it, and my own perspective. Many people, on both sides of this issue see it in black and white terms. I am not saying they are wrong, I am writing this because to me there is a lot of grey areas in this complex subject that are worthy of thought and discussion.
In order to be able to truly understand any discussion about cultural appropriation everyone needs to have a basic understanding of these terms, cultural appropriation, cultural exchange, and cultural assimilation. These terms often get misused and confused with each other, so let’s talk about them for a minute.
1. Cultural exchange- is sharing different ideas, traditions, and knowledge with someone who may be coming from a completely different background than your own.
The keywords to remember here are SHARING and EXCHANGE, these things are offered willingingly and something is given back. This is much more likely to be the case when one culture is not oppressing or marinizing the other. The more equal two cultures are the more freely true cultural exchange can occur. In addition to this the original origins and credit of these ideas and traditions remain in tact.
2. Cultural Assimilation- is the process by which a person or a group’s language and/or culture come to resemble those of another group.
A common example of this is when a black person feels pressured to straighten their hair so that she is perceived as more professional, less threatening or A person chooses to use a whiter, less foreign sounding name on job applications. These are changes that happen on an individual or cultural level that are not always done by choice. Oftentimes the choice is adopt these new habits or be discriminated against.
3. Cultural Appropriation- the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.
A few things to remember to note about this term is that there has been no measurable exchange in return for these customs and that the practices or traditions are considered against the wishes of the majority of the original culture, this can be because these things are culturally sacred, or require a deep understanding in order to be used properly. Many things considered appropriation also reinforce negative stereotypes or contribute to the further damage to a culture. This happens a lot when one culture is the dominant culture of an area. In short it is appropriation if one or more of the following things are true.
-Credit is not given to source culture- IE renaming something, taking credit for inventing something, profiting from something that marginalized cultures could and should be profiting from.
-The source culture or race has said that the way you are representing their culture is doing damage to, making equality a and respect hard for that culture.
-It is something considered sacred or hard earned and by making it common the source culture feels you are diminishing the importance of the tradition.
Common examples of this would be halloween costumes that are based on racial stereotypes “Indian Princess”, middle eastern terrorist costumes,
Using cultural images to sell unrelated products- Uncle Tom’s Rice, Aunt Jemima Syrup
White actors being used to play fiction and non fiction roles that were or were meant to be played by minorities.
Many people who are not familiar with these terms form an opinion on the terms themselves rather than the circumstance they are at play in and without understanding the similarities and differences between them or rather they have positive or negative effects on minority cultures. In my opinion this is a grave error. I know that this would all be so much easier if we could just come up with a list of what is and isn’t okay. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen as there are too many variables in each situation to make an end all be all list., not to mention that as cultures and culture dynamics are always changing, what may be considered exchange today might be appropriation tomorrow and vice versa. Sometimes the adoption of a custom… is going to be appropriation, sometimes it will be an exchange. What we can do is listen and research when the majority of a culture has said that something is being appropriated. We can also take the time to think about how adopting these customs, or traditions reflect on the culture they came from and who benefits from these actions and who suffers for them. Notice I did not ask you to examine your intentions? That is because what your intention is does not outweigh or neutralize the effect these actions have. Often damage that is done was unintentional, that does not excuse it. It does not matter that you meant it out of respect if the culture feels it is disrespectful.
For most things there is a very clear majority opinion. Native American Headdresses are appropriation. Sometimes though, they are not so clear. Like dreadlocks. Are they cultural appropriation or not? Well as much as I wish I could give you a clear cut yes or no. I won’t be able to do that. The answer is maybe, no? Sometimes, yes? I know that is not very helpful but please bear with me. What I can do is take you through both sides of the arguments as I understand them.
As a culture Black Americans do not have a cohesive opinion on this issue, at least not like we do on many other issues such as black face, white people using the n- word… There is a couple of reasons for this that I observe, the biggest being that this is a relatively new conversation that we have not had time, energy, or resources in our past to talk about among ourselves or with others. A culture must reach a certain level of equality before some conversation can happen and could have any effect. It would have been very difficult to have a conversation about voting rights when the country still thought you to be closer to livestock then to a human being. True equality and freedom is something that Black Americans and other minorities have had to build on little by little, decade after decade, century after century. It is not that we have not been having these feelings all along, it is that this is finally the time that we can share those feelings with each other. Also do remember that thinking that all black people must agree on every issue is a form of racism, rather it is well meant or not. Even issues the majority of us do agree on there are still those that will not. Maybe one day the majority of us will agree on this matter, maybe they will not, that does not mean that you need to approach this issue with respect to the black community no matter which opinion they share.
Before we go any further, I would like to ask any non-black viewers to please take extra care to not attempt to use anything in this video to silence or dismiss a black person who does not like the way you wear your hair. Please empathize and understand as best you can that we have been fighting to wear our natural hair the way it is meant to be worn for centuries. We have been ripped away from the cultures of our ancestors and what shreds we managed to take with us have been criminalized, marginalized and appropriated consistently since before this country was even founded. However reasonable or justified you think your opinion in this matter is please remember, please do not attempt to change the mind of a black person about it. Allow them to not like your hair. Do not explain to them how you think it is okay or that they are misinformed. If you come across a black person who has issues with your hair, please remember that there is literally no part of black life, or death that white society has not shared their negative opinions about and worse as a culture black people are expected to care and account for these opinions constantly. We must know at all times how white society feels about our clothing, employment, children, music, and of course our hair. I have had my hair hatefully and carelessly insulted and disrespected by more white people then I could count. This has been the same for my whole life no matter how I wore my hair rather it be in locs, braids, straight, long, short, weave or my own.
I have had perfect strangers tell me my hair looked or felt like sheep’s wool, pubbs, offer to buy me a relaxer, tell me I needed to get a relaxer. Even when non black people claim to like my hair they often touch without asking, often before they have even spoken to me. Please if you are not black and choose to lock your hair make peace with the fact that some black people may not like it. Some will have no problem with it. Some will have no feeling at all about it. If you cannot be okay with this and be respectful, then locking your hair is not for you.
Even as bad as the offhanded and hurtful remarks are that are not even close to all of it. Black people experience hair discrimation in school and at work. It affects what jobs we are hired for, what raises we get, and rather or not we are respected. This is not a matter of opinion, but of fact. Discrimation against black hair has plagued black people for centuries. Some states even have a history of having laws requiring black women to cover their hair. Every few months there is a news story about a child or young adult who has their braid cut off by a teacher, expelled from private school, or forced to forfeit a sports match unless they cut their locs or take out their braids. California has recently passed the C.R.O.W.N Act that had protected black people against natural hair discrination because it was such a problem and frankly national laws need to be passed in order to protect against this sort of racial based discrimantion.
Why is it so wrong to ask black people to straighten their hair? If all things were equal it wouldn’t be an issue at all. Some would choose to straighten their hair and some would not. However all things are not equal. No one should be made to think that the way their hair grows out of their head and the styles that are best suited to that hair is inferior or undesirable. Not to mention the staggering cost and time associated with keeping up with chemically relaxed hair and weaves or the damage to the scalp and hair that can be caused and in the case of relaxers other short or long term health issues that can be caused. No one should feel they have to pour a chemical that can cause chemical burn and balding of the scalp and hair or that can cause blindness if it reaches the eyes.
Now that we have discussed white hair privilege and the pain/cost it causes among the black community let’s talk about the term “dreadlock” what it is and where it comes from. A dreadlock is a matted length of hair, generally there will be many separately sectioned mattes. One of the most common arguments for dreadlocks not being appropriated is that they have been part of most cultures at some point in history. This has been talked about a lot so I won’t spend too much time here. A very short list of cultures commonly referenced in this argument at Vikings, First Nation people, Indian people, and Irish. Is this true? Well yes and no. These cultures and many more had various styles of matted hair that were important to them. These cultures never called them dreadlocks that term came from Rastafarian and Caribbean cultures. It must also be said that many black people do not like it when black people use the words dreadlocks as many feel it is or should be specific to Rastafarians while others feel it has a derogatory conationaton and prefer to refer to their hair as locs.
In short intentionally or unintendedly matted hair may not be cultural appropriation, but the term dreadlocks is. Although I have no way of knowing if this will do anything to solve this issue or not I hope it will go some way to repair communication and to show respect to black people and the war we have had to fight to preserve our hair dignity and culture. If you are claiming that your hair is not appropriation because you have a history of it in your culture then call it what your culture would have. Do not claim that this is about your culture and then appropriate a word whose bloody and oppressive history you do not share in and ultimately does not affect you. It is very much like calling all sparkling wine champagne, yes there are similarities, a lot of them even, but that does not mean they are the same thing. The less the differences between the two are discussed, the less the differences are known and the harder it becomes for one to distinguish from the other. Some commonly used options are Fae locks, Witch locks, tassels, ropes, snakes, knots, matts, Lokks and many more. If you are a person who is not black, and wants to or is wearing locs, I sincerely hope that you are willing to look back into your own culture and find a word with a different history and association that does not erase or minimize the importance or unique history of dreadlocks in black cultures. If you are still struggling to grasp what I am saying, perhaps this will help. If we called all flowers roses, you could imagine it would get very difficult to distinguish what makes roses special.
As warned from the beginning this is a very complex topic and I can not tell you what is right for you. I can only share my perspective and make these decisions for myself. Long before the appropriation argument was in the mainstream I was doing hair for everyone. My mother was a white woman who only knew what little she did because before she got pregnant with me her black friend used to do it for her and eventually taught her how to do it for her then boyfriend. My white mother was the one who first taught me. Although my mother made many mistakes with my hair (that devastated both of us, in different ways) what little she knew about it was because of the black women who taught her long before I was around. As it was such a struggle for me to love and care for my hair I have always talked about mine and others’ hair journeys with my non white clients. I make sure that they understand and respect everything I have talked about here and more. I choose to use my profession to create a space, not just for hair, but for learning and communication. I watch documentaries like Good Hair and shows like Self Made with them while I am doing their hair. If they do not show respect and understanding I do not do their hair anymore.
When the appropriation topic came up it was very difficult for me to know how to proceed as I knew that just because I did not see the issue does not mean that there wasn’t one. I did not want to value my career over the views and opinions of my people. Nor did I feel comfortable automatically turning people done for a service I could and used to provide because of their skin color. I wondered if it was appropriation and it was as simple as white people should not have them then at what point was I not black enough to have locs? How would I feel if a white passing black person got screamed at by a well meaning white person for appropriating their own culture? What about the many (mostly) women who support themselves and their families by braiding hair for tourist in the Caribbean? For myself I could not come up with a satisfying enough answer to make me stop doing locs and braids for white people. My research did help me to find my own place in this larger discussion and I hope that me choosing to encourage communication, understanding, compassion and respect might help someone else to find theirs as well.