Dreadlocks, Cultural Appropriation, and Thoughtfulness

Debbie says:

Shayna Stock (who is white) cut off her dreadlocks in January, and wrote a long, nuanced post about the experience.

before (with dreadlocks)
after (shaven head)

Here’s her short version:

I have learned more about the history of dreadlocks and their significance as a symbol of Rastafarianism and black/African resistance to white supremacy. I have done a lot of reading and conversing about cultural appropriation – the adoption of a specific element of one culture by another cultural group – and its capacity, when the historical significance of that cultural element is not respected and maintained, to function as a source of further oppression and colonization.

All of this learning, reading and conversing caused me to honestly examine my motivations for locking my hair. When I did, I was not confident that my reasons for having dreads outweighed their potential oppressive effect on the people and cultures for whom dreadlocks hold deep spiritual and political meaning.

The long version is very much worth reading. It includes a link to Dante McAuliffe at Young, Black, Intelligent on why he grew back his locks.

Make no mistake about it, the practice of wearing dreads in the modern western world is due almost entirely to the spread of the Rastafari and reggae cultures. Yes, locked hair has been worn for thousands of years, but it was only after reggae stars like Bob Marley came onto the scene that wearing dreadlocks became popular. The wearing of dreadlocks as we know it came from a movement meant to inspire and uplift black people. It was a highly spiritual thing. It was not about privileged hipster kids looking for something to rebel against. Indeed, dreads were something you only saw Rastas wearing. But after Bob hit the scene, that all changed.

Both Stock and McAuliffe quote extensively from various folks’ comments on locks and cultural appropriation, from all sides of the issue.

Here’s Stock again:

When I first locked up, I was living in Ghana and hanging out with Rastas who were very happy to give me dreads. I had more than their permission – I had their blessing and their enthusiasm, and it was their hands that did the deed. I was motivated by some resonance with some of the values and culture of Rastafarianism as I experienced it in that context. I also saw dreads as the most natural way to wear my hair — they required no product, no brushing, and minimal washing, which appealed to the environmentalist, the naturalist, and the time economist in me. And the feminist in me liked that they challenged ideals and stereotypes of female beauty….

If I am being fully honest with myself, I acknowledge that one of my main motivations was aesthetics. I’d long admired how locks looked on other people before making the decision to grow them myself. To me, they represented anti-authoritarian and counter-culture politics, and I liked the edgy, creative, earthy image they helped me construct of myself. I didn’t associate this with fetishizing Black/Rasta culture, or recognize the implicit racism in these motivations, until the aforementioned facebook conversation pointed it out.

I think it’s important that we don’t paint all white people with dreadlocks with the same brush. My personal conclusion, based on my very specific circumstances and motivations, was to cut mine off. I think a lot of white folks with dreads have similar motivations. But I think it is possible for culturally aware white people to sport dreadlocks in a way that honours their origins and political/spiritual significance. As one Rastafari commenter noted, “I know some white-rasta’s who follow the tenets better than some Black folks.”

For me, the take-away message is to revel in how seriously folks of all stripes are thinking about this issue, and the deeper cultural appropriation issues that lie underneath it. We will never get out of some of the traps we are in with simple answers and automatic assumptions, so it is intensely refreshing to read work from people who are struggling with complex reactions and minimal assumptions. My personal thanks to Shayna Stock, Dante McAuliffe, and so many of the commenters they quote.