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Revisiting Dreadlocks, White People, And The Cultural Appropriation Brigade

I’ve written before, and more than once, about how (and why) white people get hostile over the matter of white people wearing dreadlocks, and how fundamentally ridiculous an exercise this is. Just yesterday, the matter resurfaced again in a way that I was unprepared for—as a brief moment in a short YouTube video made to educate about the role of hair in Black history over the past 500-some-odd years. Now, the narrator of the video even mentions that it’s pretty hard to acknowledge everything that happened over the past six centuries in a YouTube video, but regardless, it lit a lightbulb in my brain. Following is the video I’m referring to (it engages specifically with the origins of the term “dreadlocks”, and of the Rastafari movement, from 4:15 to 4:50).

There are some matters that I will never be able to look at the same way again as a result of seeing that video, really paying attention, and sleeping on it before I began to compose my thoughts. I literally dreamed about telling a fellow white person about this video, and the illumination it provided. And in that vein, I’m just going to jump right into why I’m writing now. I am not here to lecture or pontificate about what people of colour do; rather, I am composing my thoughts to address my fellow whites. Specifically, I am addressing whites who think it is their duty to defend people of colour from a perceived appropriation of culture by coming down on white people who wear their own hair in locks. This is often accomplished with no shortage of hostility from one white person (or many) to another, and sometimes escalating into threats of violence. There has never been a question in my mind that this behaviour is fundamentally wrong, and not merely misguided; not only because it is a form of abuse, but because that abuse is directly symptomatic of white supremacy as well (and thus, is inherently privileged behaviour that only white people can freely flex in each others’ faces).

White People & Their Hair

My conscious relationship to this subject matter began only a few years ago, while I was shaving my head at the time and flirting with the idea of growing my hair out to have it woven into locks. My reasons for even thinking about this had nothing to do with the accusations hurled at me, such as “wanting to be Black” or wanting to be perceived as “spiritually inclined”… No… My reasons for thinking about having my hair woven into locks had to do with coming to terms with and accepting my own body. As a survivor of early childhood sexual abuse, incest, and no shortage of sexual violence as an adult (the vast majority of which, it may interest you to know, was at the hands of white people), this is no trivial task. Take into account that as a trans person, I also experience varying degrees of gender dysphoria as well, and we’re talking about a monumental undertaking. Shaving my head for a year and a half taught me a lot about the relationship of my identity to my hair. That time gave me a lot of opportunities to reflect upon what I had been doing to my own body as I struggled with my identity. Now that I’ve been growing my hair out for three years, I’ve had even more time to continue that process of internal reflection.

It’s conspicuously odd for a white person of masculine presentation to express a deep emotional struggle over their hair. We are openly ridiculed for forming such an association and emotional attachment to this part of our bodies. White supremacist beauty standards presented to us everywhere we look call upon white men to regularly cut their hair; and even issue a call to embrace a sense of duty, honour, and nationalism above individual identity, in the act of shaving it off. At the same time, our own history as white people reveals that shaving our heads is strongly associated with visible and violent white nationalism if we are masculine-presenting, while the same act is strongly associated with public shaming if we are feminine-presenting. Choosing to keep our hair long is associated with poor hygeine, recklessness, loose morals, and lack of productivity in the capitalist sense if we are masculine-presenting; and the same choice is presented as culturally normative and desirable if we are feminine-presenting (even if this choice is individually difficult to achieve or maintain for a variety of reasons). And so, through no coincidence of strong societal pressures, white men are expected to keep their hair short or remove it entirely. White men are expected to invest no further thought into the matter, and in a lot of ways, this expectation extends to the rest of their bodies as well.

White People & Non-White Peoples’ Hair

All of these mainstream cultural norms about white people and their hair exert enough regulatory pressure of their own upon white people, that for someone like me to even quietly express an interest in potentially having my hair woven into locks at some point in the forseeable future, an angry backlash from fellow whites loaded with unchecked assumptions seems entirely too predictable as a matter of default. However, this anger does not exist in a vacuum. As the YouTube video details (only one history specific to one racial demographic where there are many more existing and intersecting in the same space and over the same duration), whites have also been busy for several consecutive centuries, spending a lot of time and energy policing the bodies of people of colour by the standards we apply to ourselves. We have, collectively speaking, been asserting ownership over the bodies of people of colour in this way. The white supremacist standards of beauty that persist and self-perpetuate to this very day continue to assert that same sense of white ownership over the bodies of people of colour.

White people shaved the heads of indigenous Africans stolen from their homelands in order to strip them of their identities. White people also cut the long hair of the indigenous peoples they dominated across all of North and South America (when they weren’t taking the skin of their scalps along with it), and this was also done in order to strip them of their identities. I can’t be completely certain without undertaking a rigorous search for information, but instinct tells me that white colonists also cut the hair of Australian aborigines and indigenous peoples of New Zealand, Polynesia, and the South Pacific, while violently converting them to Christianity. I’m also reasonably certain that after restricting South Asian and Asian emigrants from setting foot in North America, subjecting those who did successfully arrive on the shores of the Pacific Northwest to railway wage slavery with stolen monies from treaties with indigenous peoples, then a mandatory head tax, and then restricting their access to the means to secure gainful employment with the skills and knowledge they came with, that South Asian and Asian immigrants were also stripped of their identity along with their long hair. All of this was concurrent with and followed by human zoos, featuring spectacles of indigenous peoples of colour from no fewer than four continents, in North America and Europe, for white entertainment.

Macro Vision & Micro Action

So while I as an individual have lifelong trauma relating to ownership of my body, this literally and figuratively pales in comparison to centuries of intergenerational trauma caused by colonialism, slavery, and genocide. And it is clear to me that, in an effort to appear more progressive (and perhaps, by extension, less complicit), the white people who furiously champion the cause of putting other white people in their place over the matter of locks, who I like to refer to as The Cultural Appropriation Brigade, have at least a superficial appreciation of this history and present context. Accompanying frequent threats of inherently abusive actions such as jumping white people wearing locks and cutting their hair off, are even more frequent accusations of cultural appropriation. In the minds of those white people who are inclined to this line of argument, a white person wearing their own natural hair in locks is attempting to fabricate and adorn themselves with a Black identity while conveniently side-stepping all of the daily oppressions faced by Black people. However, this implicitly posits the Rastafari movement as the monolithic “Black culture”—a political movement that, while obviously racialised both internally and externally, is not racially exclusive.

I’ve pointed out before that this line of argument is, in fact, flagrantly racist towards the very people The Brigade seeks to defend from other whites, whether they consent to this “help” or not, and is thus its own undoing. I’ve also pointed out that locks have been and still are worn in other cultures, such as by some Jewish ascetics and certain Hindu ascetics. I’ve also pointed out that it is asceticism that the Rastafari movement has in common with these other cultures in which locks are worn. That locks are not a specific indicator of cultural achievement, role, or identity, even within the Rastafari movement, and thus, the issue identified by The Brigade and pushed with no shortage of hostility is not really about cultural appropriation but racial mimicry—or in other words, blackface. And yet even that argument doesn’t make sense if the subject of the accusation is wearing locks woven out of their own hair, as opposed to a slouchy hat with fake Black locks attached (an item that actually shows up in the Halloween costume department every fucking year, complete with white person in a tie-dye shirt, much to my personal annoyance bordering on the urge to burn the fucking place down).

The point that I missed until I watched that video, and the point that seems to be consistently missed by The Cultural Appropriation Brigade, is the reason why the term “dreadlocks” came into being in the 30s, along with the fact that a white person whose hair is in locks will never trigger such dread on sight alone. There is a very readily palpable fear of Black men among white people, who internalise the idea that the very bodies of Black men are inherently violent and threatening, regardless of what they are engaged in at any given time. This is why a Black man is executed by police every 19 hours in the United States. This is a terror that has been intentionally curated over centuries while serving as part of the foundational structures of white civilization. This isn’t a problem that’s going to go away if white people start jumping each other in the streets with a pair of scissors, shouting “cut off your dreads, whitey!

In the end, it’s been longer now that I decided against having my hair woven into locks than the amount of time I ever spent toying with the idea, and I’ve learned not only to accept this part of my body, but to celebrate it in its natural state. This was not something that just happened overnight, but a process that took a great deal of emotional labour to overcome certain deeply engrained fears and anxieties about being misgendered or simply losing my patience with my own body and regressing to an inherently abusive relationship with it. I’ve also decided to stop referring to locks as “dreadlocks” or “dreads”, as of the end of this piece of writing, due to the profound lift in my consciousness provided by that YouTube video—I could not have arrived here on my own. But these are still very finite actions on my part in response to a systemic problem. As an individual, I don’t have an answer appropriate to scale. And as a white individual, it’s not going to be up to me or white people collectively to provide a solution to the problem we created and we continue to benefit from constantly.

40 thoughts on “Revisiting Dreadlocks, White People, And The Cultural Appropriation Brigade

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  3. Thank You for writing this. I appreciate the honesty and integrity in this post. There is more to managing black hair and how it ties into braids and locks but the first video gave a well enough idea of the history. As a black person, it’s painful to experience the effects of having our culture stripped away but I’m glad it’s steadily coming back. Black hair & black hairstyles is so so so important to our culture, it’s who we are, especially in Africa and its part of my pride as a black person too. It’s not a fashion trend, it’s in our identity and blood and in our kinky hair DNA. It’s annoying when white people just come and take whatever remnants they can find of our culture and wear it as a new trend without knowing the meaning behind it – often times it looks poorly done because hair texture and curliness are different and that wasn’t considered.

  4. Thanks for the video you posted here! It was really very interesting and informative, and I had literally no idea about any of it. I toyed with the idea of getting dreadlocks at university, but couldn’t square the idea of me as a white woman having a traditionally black hairstyle; something about it just felt wrong to me. Cultural appropriation is probably the right term, though I didn’t really have the words for it. I just didn’t want to disrespect anyone, so I never did get the locks.

  5. “instinct tells me that white colonists also cut the hair of Australian aborigines”

    Indigenous Australians, thank you. Calling us “aborigines” is akin to calling African Americans “negros”. I suggest you research instead of using your “instinct”.

    • Here in North America, virtually every published source of information and insight into the population of indigenous peoples of the continent of Australia uses the term I did. If this is in fact wrong, to the magnitude of the error you have indicated it is, I literally would have had no way of knowing that this is the case. And neither would anyone else on the continent.

      Linguistically, I have found that the use of the term you indicate is offensive, is in fact an exception. I have found this conspicuous. And yet I have not had other alternatives offered before. Also, the alternative you provide strikes me as akin to saying “indigenous Canadians” — Canada is a settler construct, and so one might as well say “indigenous settler”. It doesn’t make sense.

      • Oh thank you so much for explaining that to me, I wouldn’t have known a thing about the nomenclature of my people without your help.

        So, since in one breath you can say you couldn’t possibly have known because reasons, and then in the next you’re doing research on the internet, a thing totally available to you while you were saying you couldn’t have known, let me break this down for you, so you don’t have to whitesplain to me any further.

        My people have been here for 60,000 years – far and away long enough to count as indigenous to a region – and consist of many groups. I, for example, am Koori, and more specifically, Wurundjeri. Those of us whose ancestral lands are on the mainland and Tasmania are Aboriginal. When Tiwi and Torres Strait Islanders are included, we are Indigenous Australians. These are the terms used – and accepted for use – both by us, and by academia.

        Next time, when someone tells you a thing you says was racially insensitive, instead of backpedalling like you did, maybe you should just, gee, I don’t know, accept it.

        • At no point in this exchange have I or do I dispute what indigenous means.

          Turns out, however, that there are people among you who, like indigenous peoples of Africa and even this continent, strongly prefer not to be called indigenous, specially because white people who were born on your continent, in Africa, or in North America, call themselves indigenous, simply because that’s where they were born by accident. A practice that both inspires a deepening of my contempt for such people, and a confusion of how best to address the subject matter with all due respect and consideration for the population this word was once in reference to.

          So, unfortunately for the conflict it has apparently caused between yourself and I, I learned from direct experience (and not a panicked reflex to conduct a search on google, as you evidently believe), that no matter how I choose to parse the contents of my thoughts, I am going to upset someone somewhere.

          I chose to write anyway, and I chose the best term that I know of, can summon independently, and can even confirm externally, to describe a population so huge and diverse as all indigenous peoples of Australia are. For that, I do not presently feel the need to ameliorate your increasing frustration with me.

          No backwards pedaling at any point so far.

          • “Australian aborigines and indigenous peoples of New Zealand”

            So the Maori aren’t given their name, and are called “indigenous” (which is especially interesting, given your little diatribe), while my people get given a slur? At least use capital-A AboriginAL. Calling us “aborigines” is beyond distasteful.

            Fuck it. I give you the terms that we, by and large, use, and you ignore it. Typical white people. You talk about cultural appropriation and racism, yet dig your heels in when it’s pointed out that you’re no better.

            Revolting.

        • By the way, I thought I would add this second comment reply to communicate further with you on a few things:

          1) I am operating on the assumption that you are not lying about your identity, though I could not possibly know one way or another — and as such, I am also operating on the assumption that you know better than I do on the particular point you’ve raised, from the perspective of an indigenous person of a continent I’ve never had the privilege of setting foot on. My observation is that you are assuming that I don’t or won’t believe you without qualification, when the opposite is true in this case.

          2) I am operating on the assumption that we are having an exchange as equal people with a great deal of differences in terms of identity and experience. I do not assume superiority on my part or yours. My observation is that you assume that I think myself superior, and so you convey yourself in a way that suggests you are being intentionally condescending. You wouldn’t know it, but I know this dynamic quite well already, and can promise you there’s no need for it.

          3) CURVEBALL: on this continent, the words “indigenous” and “aboriginal” are adjectives, applied generically to the First Peoples of this continent, the former being what is considered preferred, while the latter is used, rather oddly (or perhaps conspicuously is a better way to put it) as a noun in written colonial law.

          4) CURVEBALL #2: I was an academic for a while, but I’m not now and haven’t thought of myself as one for years now. During the time that I was an academic, my limited and brief exposure to the 60,000-year histories and traditions of (some) indigenous peoples of Australia (while still on this continent) was in an academic setting, using the very term I recently used my best possible judgement to decide upon — the term you equate with language that is widely frowned upon (and yet, is still used when quoting renowned civil rights activists, who used it as the best possible politically correct language in their time on this continent). This is to say nothing of the same term’s appearance in other languages such as dialects of French.

          5) CURVEBALL #3: this entire conversation is taking place in English (a language that has only existed at all in the past 2,000 years), and it will, by its very nature, always fall short of engaging the subject matter you’ve brought to my attention. As will any language other than the language that comes from the land itself — where, across such an enormous and diverse landscape, even I am aware with as little knowledge as I do possess, there does not exist a single monolithic term to describe the entire collective of its original inhabitants that is shared among the many ancestral languages they spoke.

          • I really liked this piece and thought that you had great points, but when I got down to the comments and noticed that a person of color had informed you that something you’d said was offensive, you threw all your previous ideals and morals out the window and quite literally “whitesplained” your way out of it. Then, when confronted again with the fact that the appropriate thing for you to do would be to apologize and accept it, you wrote an entire diatribe of reasons why you shouldn’t have to apologize for your wrongdoing (and yes, it was wrong, regardless of what you think, because when a person of color tells you that something is offensive, especially when it is your use of a slur, you don’t get to say, “nuh-uh”). That is not okay. Nor is your obvious desire to rid yourself of blame. Earlier in this comment section, someone referred to you with a slur. I don’t have to tell you that it was incredibly fucked up and that the person who did so was wrong. While her use of a slur and yours differed in your intent (hers was to hurt, yours was not), the second you chose not to apologize or even accept that you’d used a slur, your intent became oppressive just like hers was.

            Whether or not you write fantastic blog posts about cultural appropriate has no bearing on whether or not you should check your fucking privilege when you speak to other people. I’m not going to assume for one second that you’ll agree with me any more than you agreed with the indigenous person who called you out (do you see how easy it was to use their preferred term there?), but if it makes you think about what you did even for a moment or gives you a little pause before you do it again, it was worth it. You are in a unique position when it comes to understanding discrimination, use of preferred terms, and the harm that comes from slurs. It is disappointing that you don’t use that understanding to graciously accept when you’ve made a mistake.

            • You know, one day you’re going to be around people who aren’t white like you or I, possibly for a fairly considerable amount of time, and you’ll be confronted, as I was here, as I have been elsewhere for other things that just didn’t add up compared against the wealth of knowledge I have earned directly through my personal experience (which includes how I experience oher people and their stories and knowledges), and you’re going to have to choose between

              A) defaulting to “well, this is a person of colour, so clearly they always know better than I do, and whatever they say, it can never be wrong,” or
              B) having a little faith in yourself

              and when that day comes, I hope you remember tellng me to “check my fucking privilege” in the middle of a pretty much spontaneous diatribe on the comments section of a fairly inactive blog about a life you know basically nothing about.

              People like me are not so unique that we don’t still do things or make decisions that people like you (who I used to sound an awful lot like) find problematic. Whether or not you’re right (or even just more right than wrong), I am actually allowed to ruminate before I change my mind or simply decide not to. I am allowed, whether or not you think otherwise because of the say-so of a complete stranger to both of us, to reflect on the experiences I have had in my life that this entire situation reminds me of, and navigate that thought process both silently and privately, if and until I decide to vocalise the conclusion I’ve reached. I can even change that conclusion later and not say a thing if I so please.

              So I would suggest to you, in the future, to think twice before basically posting a comment exclusively for the express purpose of manipulating another person’s life experience against them to prove a point. You don’t know what you’re even getting into, and you’re not going to win that argument. Because to you, it is just an argument. To me, and I’m assuming to the person who brought my attention to a specific detail about my writing in the exact same manner as you did, it’s my life.

            • And by the way (I forgot to mention this)
              it was pretty clear that their preferred term is not a generic one, if you’ve read their comments. They stated clearly a claim to a specific ancestry.

            • As a NA academic, I can definitely attest to the fact that we are/have been taught to refer to those who are native to the Australian continent as “Aborigines,” so I hardly understand why an apology is expected. “I’m sorry for using a term that renowned NA scholars in Indigenous studies widely use?” We’re talking about academia, not pop culture.

              Also, from a person of color, I’d advise you to tone down your self-righteous self-flagellating attitude in defense of what “colored people find offensive.” We don’t all speak for each other, you know. Also “checking one’s fucking privilege” doesn’t mean that one can’t express their perspective on racial matters because they’ve inherited these privileges.
              Clarifying/educating each other on appropriate nomenclature is necessary. Being an arrogant prick about it isn’t.

  6. Just wondering what your view would be on a white folk having dreads if they naturally formed as result of not brushing? I understand it might not be traditional but surely this isn’t unnatural?

    • Well first off, I wouldn’t call them dreads.
      Secondly, I wouldnt call them locs either, as they are formed from intentional neglect.
      And thirdly, I would say there’s an extremely high probability that it flies in the face of said white person’s own historical traditions, as hygiene (and particularly hair grooming) was actually incredibly important in pre-Roman European cultures.

      So, that said, I’d call it “nope”.

  7. In Africa no one really cares about whites, who are the minority there, adopting certain cultures and traditions from them.
    The situation with racism is quite different here and therefore people have different worries. When you see a white woman in box braids here no one really cares because its not unusual seeing as these people grow in those African communities.

    I have a white friend who was adopted by pure African parents. From as you as he could remember he grew up in the culture like his family, participated in the traditions like his family and is seen as an African male by his family.

    I just wanted to know if he’s allowed to braid his hair into cornrows like the rest of his family or is he not allowed because he’s a white descendant?

    • And I want to know why you believe you’re an authority on how people living in Africa (which I will now remind you is a continent, not a city) feel about white people pulling bald spots open on their heads to look like Black people.

      Then I want to know why you’re asking me.

  8. Pingback: Listen and speak. Appropriation is not a monolith and neither am I or you. | Mad Kate

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