I cut my dreadlocks off last night.
Actually, my friend Beth did it for me. Here she is:
There are many reasons why. Here is the 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.
Here is the longer version:
A few months ago, I came across a reference online to dreadlocks on white people as cultural appropriation. I don’t remember the details — just that it piqued my interest and made me begin to wonder about the possibly harmful implications of my hairstyle on a white body.
Then I heard fellow poet Jillian Christmas reference “white-girl dreadlocks” in her poem Black Feminist, which she performed at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in November. The poem isn’t specifically about cultural appropriation, but that line and the way she delivered it spurred me on to dig a little deeper.
I read a few articles online about cultural appropriation and the origin of dreadlocks. Here’s one of my favourites: http://www.youngblackintelligent.com/2013/05/white-people-with-dreadlocks-cultural.html
And then I started a conversation on facebook. It turns out people have a LOT to say on the topic.
Here’s what I posted:
“I’d like to hear people’s thoughts on dreadlocks on white people as cultural appropriation. Been doing some reading and thinking, instigated by a few things including a line in one of Jillian Christmas’ poems about “white-girl dreadlocks.” The more I learn and ponder, the further I’m leaning toward cutting mine off. But I’m curious to hear other people’s thoughts.”
From the 116 comments, here are a few that most stuck with me:
“I researched the hell out of dreads before I locked up. Dreadlocks have existed in the vast majority of cultures since as far back as we can determine history. Each culture assigns dreads their own meaning and connotations, no doubt, and is something that should be considered… I think it is really dangerous to form blanket opinions about someone based on a hairstyle…”
“I guess for me, the biggest reason why I wouldn’t lock my hair is because folks of colour say it’s problematic for them. Lots of folks of colour get discriminated against because of wearing their hair naturally, whereas a white person who has locks will not be subject to the same discrimination.”
“I wear my beautiful Black hair naturally… Many, many people of all ethnic backgrounds ask me on a fairly regular basis when I’m going to dread it. My answer is “I’m not going to dread my hair… Because I’m a Jamaican.” Many people look at quizzically when I say that, but it’s very simple – because I understand the history of dreadlocks in Jamaica, and the struggle of Rastas to be accepted in their own community (much less by people outside of Jamaica), I would not dishonour that by wearing dreads for fashion reasons… in Canadian society, dreadlocks are associated with Black culture despite the rest of the history, and that is how they will be viewed, fair or not. And if you choose to keep them, this is the context you will be forced to deal with as you walk the streets as a white person with dreadlocks. Some Blacks will never see it as being okay, and will always see it as appropriation… Part of your decision is determining how comfortable you are with this reality.”
“Do I think that locks on white people are inappropriate? 90% of the time, yes! … There are people who I love dearly, who are Caucasian and do lock their hair. But I could not love them without being able to ask them why they do it. Have they considered its effects on the people whose cultures created the tradition? Have they considered the difference in how they are treated, versus those people? Are they doing it because they think it looks “cool” or “rebellious”, or “counter culture”? Do they realize that that behaviour is called fetishizing? Do they realize that calling someone’s beliefs and culture “counter” or “exotic” is implicitly racist?”
“Even as an Indigenous woman, I still need permission of another Indigenous person from a different Nation before I use their cultural items… We are not entitled to another person’s cultural identity.”
“Rock those dreads with wisdom, morals and self discipline or not at all. The ancestors don’t care about your colour, only that you practice well the teachings of the universal truths.”
“This is how I feel, as a person of Dene and European descent: Its not up to the white person in the situation to decide if their actions are offensive or not. If one person who is a POC isn’t okay with something a white person is doing with an element of the POC’s culture, then that thing is not okay. One person being not okay with something is enough. One person feeling a little bit safer in the world is enough for me to not do something that oppresses them.”
“If it is just for “Form and Fashion’ it is 100% cultural appropriation. However if one is attracted to the meaning and African cultural relevance as well as ideological and spiritual meanings behind it, I cannot judge. I know some white-rasta’s who follow the tenets better than some Black folks.”
After 116 comments, I felt more confused than when I first made the post just 3 days earlier. Were my dreadlocks strictly for reasons of “form and fashion”? No. Was I attracted to their “African cultural relevance” and “ideological and spiritual meanings”? Yes. Was that enough? I wasn’t sure.
Since this conversation, I have given a lot of thought to my intentions in dreading my hair. I have tried to gather up all of the snippets of symbolism they hold for me, in order to piece together a narrative of spiritual and political significance that might outshine any harm or oppression they might cause or symbolize.
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.
A case could be made that my dreadlocks were an important symbol of my spiritual and political values. But this story wasn’t sitting quite right – it felt more like a creative, reactionary mash-up of partial truths than a genuine recollection of my own inner drive to be dreaded.
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.”
I’ve been dread-free for 24 hours now. So far I feel a lot lighter, a little colder, and now that this blog post is written, very excited to have the mental space to think about things that are not my hair.