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.