I recently came across an exchange on Tumblr concerning dreadlocks, and it went something like this:
dieterhaley asked misandry-mermaid:
Hey, I was just wondering what you and your followers think about white people with dreadlocks. Growing freeform dreads has been a really spiritual experience for me, so I feel conflicted when someone on Tumblr tells me it’s cultural appropriation.
to which misandry-mermaid responded:
Maybe your problem is that you’re continuing to ask a white person their opinion on something that is not their place to make judgement calls on. Go ask a black blogger, bud.
other folks responded with things like:
Alternatively: accept that it’s cultural appropriation and stop looking for one dissenting voice so you can continue not caring. – rainfelt
Un, aren’t dreadlocks a part of the rastafarian religion? So as long as you’re rastafarian shouldn’t it be okay? – iqnismarisque
How is now taking care of your nasty hair a spiritual experience? What is THE lamest excuse for racism and appropriation I have ever heard. – queenvulva
The problem, ultimately, that I see here, stems from a few things. First, people, and to my observations the fringe left, have taken to considering most intersections of cultural symbols to mean that the dominant group (white people) are appropriating (i.e., stealing) from less dominant, or marginalized cultures (i.e., African, Hindu, Japanese cultures). I don’t mean to say fringe left as some how being derogatory, as much as I mean to refer to the sub-cultural group within the left leaning ideologies as focusing primarily on group dynamics and struggles, and as being particularly anarchistic – again, not necessarily a bad thing. To their credit, it’s nice to see that young people (or people at all) are taking an active role in applying sociological theories, and attempting to re-write the mainstream notions of power balances. And again, to their credit, many of their observations are correct in saying that individuals may be appropriating from other cultures that are marginalized, or that have suffered horrendous tragedies in America’s not so distant past.
What may be negative, however, and to their (somewhat) discredit, the problem is that not everything is appropriation, and not everything comes from a racist standpoint.
In searching for the history of dreadlocks, I came across varying sources, and here is where I’ll summarize the history. The etymology stems from the 1960’s, referring, most specifically, to the Rastafarian use of the word “dread”, which to them was a biblical reference, and as such “dreadlocks” were to give others “fear of the lord.” The hairstyle was meant to express their disdain and contempt for mainstream society. It may also reference East African warriors.
This would run counter to a history given at Racismschool.com, which states:
The very name, “Dreadlock” is attached to a vile and storied history. The name is traced back to days when enslaved people were being carted across the ocean. When they arrived, their hair was matted with blood, feces, urine, sweat, tears, dirt and time. When the captors watched them walk, crawl or be carried off the ships, they referred to the hair of slaves as “Dreadful.” This was a common word used to describe the locks that had formed during the many trips. The term dreadlock became prevalent to describing the hair formation.
The term was later reclaimed with the uprising of Rastafarian culture. Dreadlocks were a source of pride in one’s history, a symbol of laying down material and capitalist pursuits and a way to thumb disdain at white culture. The very name or rather it’s shortened version, locks, is a source of great pride for a history that may never be truthfully told.
I would argue that this summary of the history is academically dishonest, and in fact misleading. I haven’t been able to find any sources, or truth behind the statement that the term is attached to slaves, or even that usage of the word “dreadful.”
To continue their history as a narrative to inform, the author continues by stating:
The most common comment of those who want to appropriate locks is, “Every culture had dreadlocks.” This is false. Any reference made to other cultures is about matting of hair. Sometimes in a lock formation, sometimes not. However, there are no other cultures that had “Dreadlocks.”
With minor research, one can find that the matting of hair in other cultures has never been, “Dreadlocks.” For example, the Irish had several names for their matted hair. Glibs, Glibbes and Gleebs were among the most common. In India, matted tufts of hair were labeled, Jata. Making the statement that “Every culture had dreadlocks” isn’t just factually incorrect, it’s disrespectful to the very history that bound each enslaved person’s lock in blood. The history of the “Dread” in dreadlock, is so vastly different than just the simple matting of hair.
I would say that the first part is, in essence, true. The term “dreadlock” didn’t appear until the 1960’s, and as such, other cultures didn’t use the term to refer to their hairstyles as “dreads” or “dreadlocks”. But to say that other cultures didn’t have the same hairstyle is also somewhat misleading. Many cultures had a very similar hairstyle – much of which having to do with religion, and spirituality, as opposed to slavery.
Religion, and spirituality, cannot be overstated in importance behind the modern day view of the hairstyle, and this reason stems from Rastafarian history – of which I don’t intend to spend too much time discussing. Erin David’s summary, however, states:
Dreadlocks are symbolic of many things within Rastafarianism. A widely held belief is that dreads are intended to intimidate and put dread into them. While this is one explanation, it is only one aspect of the practice. Dreads are grown by some in order that they resemble a lion’s mane- a sign of strength and a tribute to the Lion of Judah, Haille Selassie (Clarke 90, 1986.)
Many see the cultivation of locks as Biblically inspired and a sign of accordance with the natural way. Dreadlocks are not created by the use of any type of gel or glue, rather they are uncut, uncombed black hair in its natural state. They are also seen as an outward expression of a commitment to natural living. They are also a device aimed to create an increased self-awareness, and are an affirmation of ones African heritage (Clarke 92,1986.)
By growing dreadlocks the Rastafarian has rejected the Western standard that have thrust chemicals and treatments onto Africans. They have distanced themselves from mainstream culture by signaling that they do not wish to be accepted into a society that does not cherish African beauty and heritage. In this way locks are a form of protest against the prevailing”Babylon system”(Clarke 90,1986.)
More so, since the 1980’s on, there’s been a long academic discussion on the idea that there was a strong Eastern influence on the Rastafarian religion. It is thought that between 1845 and 1917, some 35,000 indentured servants were taken from India, and taken to Jamaica. This theory helps to explain the strong similarities between the Indian and Rastafari traditions, food, use of ganga, and rituals. It’s a very interesting theory. Furthermore, this theory would point towards Indian slaves (from India), as opposed to African slaves.
Even so, going back to the notion that because other cultures didn’t refer to their hairstyles as ‘dreadlocks’ undermines the similarities. Yogi’s in India wear them to adhere to spiritual notions of letting go of worldly possessions. Shiva, from the Hindu faith and mythology, is to believed to have cut from his “jata” a lock, throwing it upon the ground, and thus creating the Jat people. Vikings, and even ancient Egyptians are known to have had similar hair styles. Regardless of the method of creation, the hairstyle is quite similar, and almost always stemming from a spiritual notion.
This brings me to an important point regarding those that want to say that it’s cultural appropriation for a white person to have the hairstyle, and even the narrow use of the word “culture.” First of all, dreadlocks, in a great sense, are meant to represent a non-violent protest against mainstream, have in some way become viewed as mainstream – but, in context of being more widely accepted. Many subcultures have adopted this look, indeed the values that dreads show – non violent protest against the mainstream.
In effect, my protest has to be with this idea, that a hairstyle, most likely born out of colonial introduction of two cultures, in effect borrowing (as opposed to appropriation) from one another, with religious and philosophical values, has been deemed to be appropriated by subgroups and individuals that share those beliefs, simply on the basis of race. It’s reductive, reactive, and indeed, I would argue academically and historically dishonest, even vague. Many individuals share the same marginalized place in society, or may be a part of a subgroup because of shared values (take the Goths for example, or other similar groups). These folks may not be appropriating, but instead sharing similar subcultural values of non-conformity (however ironic this may seem).
Appropriation isn’t appropriation just because you’re white. This is an important distinction that’s lacking from the advocacy of freedom, choice, and equality. All to often we fall on our emotions, rather than reason. These discussions cannot be devoid of academic honest, and integrity – there’s too much at stake.
Still, take it from Bob Marley, who popularized dreadlocks. He was once asked in an interview if one had to be Rastafari to have dreadlocks, or if having dreads meant one was Rastafari – Marley’s response was, in essence, this: to suggest either means that a person is no longer a person, free of making their own choices. A person doesn’t have to be Rastafari to had dreads, or vice versa. A logical conclusion from Marley’s philosophy is, thusly, that it doesn’t matter who a person is, or where they come from, as long as they do what they believe, and that the mainstream is mundane.