It can be difficult to navigate modern political issues, especially things as complicated as cultural appropriation. So let’s talk about one common question — are dreadlocks, when worn by anyone who’s not black, an example of cultural appropriation?
A Little Background
The purpose here is not to replicate what you can find with any competent search on Google, which is to say any search anywhere online. If you want to learn about the history of dreads, try Wikipedia; if you want to learn about people who believe that dreads are appropriation, try Everyday Feminism; if you’d like to read the opposite, try this; if you want to hear Jeremy Lin talk about why he’s not sure, go here; if you want to hear Katy Perry apologize for wearing them, here is good a place as any. There are some really thoughtful articles out there, including this one on Nylon.
My guess is that you’ll end up as confused as you started, or just as certain, meaning that we all have preconceived notions and it’s hard to move away from them.
The point of this series will be repeated ad nauseum; that in the end, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether it’s cultural appropriation. What matters is what helps people who have been historically oppressed, what raises people up, what unites our divided cultures, and ultimately what solves more problems than it creates.
So the background in question here is actually our background. What have we done to inform ourselves? How have we listened to others about the issue? What gives us the right to have an opinion at all?
And can you honestly say that before answering the poll above, you took the time to truly understand the issue? If so, great. Thank you.
So What’s the Right Answer?
Honestly? Wearing dreadlocks probably is cultural appropriation and can definitely be harmful, insensitive and even oppressive. But it doesn’t have to be; there is a decision involved, and that decision is about whether the privilege you embrace in doing something undeniably attached to black identity and history is balanced by an equally sincere ownership of the social responsibility to undo the oppression symbolized by that hair style.
That was a long sentence.
Let me say it differently, because I think the answer is always the same. You can wear the style for almost any reason provided that you own the responsibility to:
- Educate yourself about the history of the hairstyle in this cultural context, not some ancient freaking civilization of purely academic interest;
- Do not wear it as a direct and intentional mockery of African Americans or our joint history, or while simultaneously engaging in racist behavior; and,
- Fight for the right of African Americans to wear the same hairstyle to work and in other professional contexts without being penalized. In other words, fight for the right of black Americans to be black Americans. Your hairstyle in this case is a badge of your allegiance. Wear it well.
Simply put, if you do it as an act of informed, genuine solidarity and you’re willing to fight for African Americans to do the same without discrimination, then go for it. Otherwise, you’re just an ignorant, thieving jerk or a clown mocking those less fortunate (privileged) than yourself.
So own it. Be an ally. Not everyone is going to agree with you, but if wearing a hairstyle causes you pain, maybe it’ll help you understand the history of the people you’re copying.
At least, that’s my right answer.