(DISCLAIMER: I fully realise that me writing about cultural appropriation as a white male may be a problematic for some people to read. I acknowledge this but after much deliberation I decided to post it up, for discussion purposes mainly. Cultural appropriation is such a massive subject, I decided to hone in on white guys with dreadlocks to avoid it becoming a colossal academic essay. Any thoughts & discussion are welcome. Thanks.)
Dreadlocks on white people; Offensive, racist, ridiculous, hilarious or just a haircut?
There are many aspects of black culture, both recent and ancient, that have been reinterpreted, bastardised or straight-up stolen by Western white middle class people. Whether it’s white Oxbridge student’s twerking to Vybz Kartel in a nightclub, or an old white dude playing acoustic blues at an open mic night, the blurred lines between cultural appropriation (bad) and mutual cultural exchange (good) surround us daily.
The discussion has bubbled up into the mainstream recently following a rise in internet vigilantes attacking celebrities and institutions for perceived cultural crimes and insensitivity. Following an online petition, Glastonbury festival decided to regulate the sale of Native American-style headdresses from the site this year, putting them on the list with alcohol, tobacco and fireworks. Similarly, celebrities like Pharrell Williams and Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips publicly apologised for wearing the headdresses, which have been described as a ‘crude act of racial stereotyping’ and is widely acknowledged as culturally offensive. Kerry Washington was also harangued recently as she tweeted that Kate Winslet was her “spirit animal” while praising the new Steve Jobs movie. Twitter users labelled her comment “Disrespectful to indigenous beliefs and communities,” leading her to apologise and delete the tweet.
The ‘racial politics of hair’ has been a topic of discussion in the frowning parts of the internet recently with Kylie Jenner being vilified after getting cornrows in her hair. In response to Jenner’s hairdo, Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg uploaded a video calling out Jenner, Miley Cyrus, Macklemore and Iggy Azalea for similar cultural thievery. In the video she juxtaposes the growing injustices and oppression faced by African-Americans with the popularity of their culture in the mainstream, posing the question, “What if America loved black people as much as they loved their culture?”
Dreadlocks have their roots in the religions of Ancient Greece, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism, and have spiritual significance in each one. Modern-day Sadhu’s and other Hindu holy men and women see them as a religious practice and an active rejection of profane vanity. This is a view shared with the Tibetan Ngakpa Buddhists, among others. Certain vows from The Book of Numbers in the bible and other Abrahamic scriptures enforce the importance of dreadlocks, these vows were later a massive influence on the 20th Century Rastafarian movement.
In Britain today, they can be seen commonly gracing the heads of crust punks, Rasta’s, metal heads, cyber Goths and hippies. Despite their links to this diverse mix of countries, races, scenes and religions, dreadlocks have been flagged up by some as cultural appropriation when worn by non-blacks. Black writers and bloggers from websites such as EverydayFeminist, The Liberated Mind, Intersectional Feminism and Sistah Vegan have all covered the subject, some presenting staunch views that white people should never have black hairstyles, and others seeing it as a sharing of culture, on par with practicing yoga or Chinese herbalism.
I put this to Leona Satchell-Samuels, a researcher at the Centre for Race and Ethnicity Studies at the University of Leeds, “White people adopting dreadlocks is an act of cultural appropriation as it takes place within the context of [post]colonialism, in which the ‘dread’ refers to the European fear of the African,” she explained. “Black men and women, particularly within Rastafarianism, have fused the aesthetic with the political in the reclamation of dreadlocks as symbolic of royalty, strength and beauty.” Leona went on to say that this cultural development counteracts European representations of blackness as “primitive, grotesque and uncivilised.”
The ignorant go-to counter argument for those that lurk in Comments sections of articles on this subject seems to be ‘black women straighten their hair, so what’s the problem?’ The difference between the two is often distinguished by the idea that survival, as opposed to fashion, is the main grounding for why many black women straighten their hair. That they’re forced to hide their blackness in order to survive the institutional racism that dominates the West.
By definition, cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture forcefully takes aspects of the culture of those they are repressing. This raises the question of whether non-white races are exempt from being appropriators. In music, for example, Leontyne Price, the great soprano, is one of the most revered interpreters of Verdi’s and Puccini’s music, and yet she is African-American. With this in mind, I thought it may be a case of right and wrong people, as opposed to whole races, and that it might be Kylie Jenner’s wealth and class that made her hairstyle seem so deplorable to people online. I asked Leona about this and she said, “It is not so much the right or wrongness of the people, but of the histories that inform our social interactions.”
I decided to speak to some of the people in question. Jasmine Gardler is a white dreadlocked hairdresser from Leeds that sometimes dreads clients’ hair and implants synthetic dreads. She said she fails to see how hair can be offensive, “Whilst I do see that Africans were the first that we know of historically to dread their hair, they are not the only ones.” She went on to talk about their significance in Hinduism, Buddhism and ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures saying, “I do not think anyone is more entitled to them than anyone else.”
These thoughts were echoed by Tom Harrison from Brighton, who’s white and has had dreaded hair for 6 years, “I don’t see it as offensive and I don’t really think it’s anyone’s intention to come across that way,” he explained. “I live in a very diverse place with lots of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds; this energy feeds the city and people within it. Each culture influences the other here, in a great way that brings people together.” Similarly, Tobie Anderson from North Yorkshire, who’s white and has had dreads for 12 years, said that he thinks it’s obvious by his overall alternative/metal style that he’s not trying to be a Rasta and isn’t trying to offend anybody’s cultural heritage.
Barely any of dreaded white people I spoke to had received hate for their hair. Jasmine had a black Rastafarian man spit at her feet once but mainly those I spoke to had simply been met with confusion, if anything at all. “I never get any comments from any black girls or guys in the UK,” TP, a white dreaded musician from London told me, “But I did have a few chats with Ras guys in Antigua and St. Kitts who were shocked to see a white guy with such long dreads. They weren’t offended at all, just intrigued, they just really couldn’t get their head around why I had done it and stuck with it.” This was the same for Tom Harrison, “I never assumed it would be an issue. I get more aggression from white people for having dreadlocks.”
Leona explained that “cultural exploitation”, as she referred to it as, doesn’t take place on the level of the individual, but in the ways that whiteness is institutionalised. The problem, she argues, lies with the plagiarism and commodification of elements of black culture whilst black people are otherwise marginalised from the workforce. This brings to mind the rising institutionalised racism and police brutality in the US and UK, and its jarring contrast to black culture’s dominance of mainstream music and fashion, through things like hip hop and soul.
Andy Davies is from London but of Kenyan descent, he had dreadlocks for 6 years, “I don’t think it’s offensive, just a bit tacky and cheesy. If anything it’s a shout out to black, African and Caribbean cultures which I don’t think is a bad thing.” Andy went on to say how he rarely sees white dudes wear the ‘look’ with any “swagger or even confidence” and that he thought they looked “terrible”. However he did maintain that he didn’t think there are right or wrong reasons or races for dreadlocks, nor did he think there were right or wrong reasons for any personal decisions, just “as long as it doesn’t harm anyone.”
This contrasts greatly with a point Leona made which was that the ‘right’ reasons to white people get dreadlocks “are too often superficial, and therefore not robust enough to outweigh the [cultural] harm caused,” and that “there are certainly wrong [reasons].”
Ben Scott, a black British guy that has been growing his ‘locks for 12 years, said, “For me dreadlocks are simply a hairstyle, for others it may be an expression of social or religious values but regardless of why you choose to wear your hair that way, your choice should not be determined by race.” Ben described it as “cultural appreciation” and identified it as one of his favourite things about the modern society we live in, along with the cultural sharing of language, fashion, music, art and sport.
This merging and converging of cultures is sometimes described as transculturation, with cuisine being one area that Leona cited as an example of when it had been effective. However, she maintained that white people having dreadlocks is different, and it can be offensive because it divorces the stylization from the original practice of resistance to European beauty standards. “If we consider it cultural exchange then what do black communities get in return?” She asks. “Is there any reciprocity?”
Despite some of the venomous prose online and the clout behind academic theses on the subject, I haven’t come across a united call for white people to cut their dreadlocks off, or that white people should never adopt parts of other cultures into their own. And as Leona mentioned perhaps the fight and focus isn’t against the individual, but rather towards the racism, injustice and plagiarism within entrenched repressive institutions and industries. I’ve come across a cacophony of differing opinions and views on the subject, which I suppose is indicative of the undeniable fact that not everyone has the same views and ideas of offence, even people belonging to the same race or culture.
Cultural exchange, or transculturation, is an inevitable and arguably beautiful result of multiculturalism. The mutuality of it all is the sticky, grey area we find ourselves stuck in when discussing it. If there was no cultural sharing whatsoever and all perceived appropriation was stopped we would live in a vastly different world to the one we live in, but it’s undoubtedly important to acknowledge that exchange isn’t always mutual and to understand the roots of the culture from which you’re borrowing. Black people with dreadlocks still face discrimination in the West and have to fight daily against the institutionalised racism that can shroud and repress them. Whereas the same can’t be said for white people with dreadlocks, who some would argue can still enjoy all the privileges of being white in a white world, whilst cherry-picking bits of other cultures to adopt purely for superficial reasons.
Being white and having dreadlocks might not mean that you’re a cultural appropriator at heart, or that you mean to offend and are racist, however, mindfulness and understanding of the continued racism and hardships that black people face are qualities that should accompany and inform your decision to adopt the hairstyle.