By: Jenn Vicious
Jenn Vicious is the radical community’s Agony Aunt, providing life coaching and social etiquette answers for radical cultures. Need poly, kinky, or queer dating advice, need to to know what to wear to court or a family function (you know, one you have to look “respectable” at), want to understand what to and not to say in some contexts, ask Jenn Vicious.
I’m a white person who wants to get dreadlocks for the following reasons in the following order: I think they look really cool and my hair is naturally so curly it often ends up matting anyway and I have to take great pains to prevent is. Now, I was going to do this until I heard someone say it was cultural appropriation to do so I, trying my best not to be an asshole, attempted to do my research online and in person. I keep finding conflicting information and no real consensus. Thoughts?
The reason why you find so much conflicting information on this subject is that no one is qualified to be the cultural appropriation police. I certainly am not comfortable deciding what is or is not cultural appropriation, and that’s mostly because white people (like me) shouldn’t be the ones who decide. However, since I have an opinion on everything (I know, super unusual for a white person, right?), here we go:
Let’s start with a basic understanding of cultural appropriation, just so we are all on the same page. In my (researched) opinion it is the stealing of other people’s cultural expressions. It means you take images or ideas from a culture that you have no connection too, and usually have an imbalanced power relationship with. That power imbalance is where things get tricky—and why white people generally don’t understand when non-white people are upset about the use of their cultures.
There are a few things that should be seen as obvious cultural appropriation: wearing feather headdresses, cultural costumes, if you have ever said that you love “tribal fashion“ [shudder]. Also, taking things of deep cultural or religious significance and capitalizing on them. (White SHAMans, ewww.)
I think dreadlocks are a gray area. It is pretty reasonable to believe that many people from many different cultures might allow their hair to dread because that is what their hair does naturally if they don’t brush it all the time. But don’t do things like put rasta beads in your dreads, unless you actually believe that Haile Selassie I is god. I also think it is dumb to go to a salon and pay a bunch of money for someone to dread your hair for you. But, again, that’s just my opinion.
Here’s what I think is more important than deciding whether or not dreads are cultural appropriation: being open to listening to people who disagree (especially people who feel a deep cultural connection with dreads). As you pointed out, some people do think it’s appropriation. My suggesting that it’s not doesn’t mean that everyone else agrees. You should listen to those people, and hear what they have to say. What often makes modern white people assholes is not just that their current existence is based on a long, long history of exploitation and thievery, but that they just don’t fucking listen to other people’s experiences.
If someone challenges you on your dread choice and you say any of the things on this Cultural Appropriation bingo card, that is a problem. If you aren’t prepared to hear people out and have conversations about it without being defensive, then don’t get dreads.
(Note: I found this article very thoughtful on the topic of cultural appropriation in the name of fashion).