Dear White People with Dreadlocks: Some Things to Consider

Emanuella Grinberg, CNN, March 31, 2016

Black hair is a touchy subject tied to beauty, identity and politics. Whether it’s Afros and black power or cornrows and hip-hop, hairstyles associated with African-American culture can make a statement before their wearers say a word.

So when whites choose a traditionally black hairstyle such as dreadlocks, it adds another layer of complexity to the issue.

Take the latest case in point: a viral video showing a black woman calling out a white male student at San Francisco State University for his dreadlocks. The video touched off debate over whether dreadlocks on white people constitute cultural appropriation, a fashion faux pas or both.

{snip} The tense encounter focuses on the origin of dreadlocks, which both parties seem to agree is Egypt. The woman contends dreadlocks belong to “my culture” and the man says “it doesn’t matter.”

{snip} It’s hard to tell who had them first, because early humans, lacking combs or styling products, likely roamed the planet with matted hair. Multiple sources credit the Vedic scriptures of Indian origin with documenting the first evidence of twisted locks of hair as early as 1800 B.C.

Historians and anthropologists have found evidence of the ‘do in ancient Egypt, Germanic tribes, Vikings, Pacific Islanders, early Christians, the Aborigines and the New Guineans as well as the Somali, the Galla, the Maasai, the Ashanti and the Fulani tribes of Africa.

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Bear in mind, though, that the actual term “dreadlock” comes from the Rastafarian culture, which is widely credited with popularizing the look in Western culture. Rastafarians consider the locks a sign of their African identity and a religious vow of their separation from what they call Babylon, a historically white-European imperialist structure that has oppressed blacks and other people of color since way back when, according to Migrations in History.

Given dreadlocks’ rich history it’s hard for one group to claim them, said Feminista Jones, writer, speaker and former wearer of locks.

“Sure, white people can wear locs,” she said in an email. “For some, they have religious or spiritual meaning. For others, it’s just a hairstyle. My research informed me that Indian monks wore them long before they reached the Western Hemisphere, so I’m not sure anyone has any particular claim.”

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“Cultural appropriation is about the power dynamic. When people with power and privilege decide to ‘validate’ customs and traditions that oppressed people have long been marginalized for by saying ‘This is the hot new thing,’ then we have serious problems. Or when they refuse to credit the people who innovated those styles or traditions, but claim them as original ideas, then we get into appropriation,” she said.

“Showing love for something awesome and doing so with respect to the culture is appreciation and I don’t see problems with that, for the most part. I do think white people have to be mindful of their privilege, though, and think twice before hopping on the newest ‘trend,’ especially if it clearly borrows from disenfranchised people.”

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