Dreadlocks tangled in cultural appropriation controversy

They’re anything but dreadful.

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Zipporah Jarmon of Hyde Park, who has had dreadlocks for five years, said that the problem isn’t when white women and men wear dreadlocks. It is when dreadlocks, which originate in black culture, are represented by a white face. (Photo courtesy of ZIPPORAH JARMON)

Referred to as locks, locs, dreads, Jata, dreadlocks — whatever you want to call them — the hairstyle is a beautiful representation of a deeply rooted cultural history.

Though dreadlocks are rooted in African culture, the style has recently become popular with those who are white, prompting conversations of cultural appropriation.

Said to be traced back to 2,500 B.C., the evolution of the knotted, sectioned-off, rope-like hairstyle can be seen in histories of Indian to Egyptian culture, finally making its way to the Rastafarian culture of the ’70s, and further to a mainstream “bohemian chic,” Caucasian trend of modern day. Most popularly traced back to Rastafarian and African culture — largely through the popularization of the hairstyle through the Reggae musician Bob Marley — locks are associated most prevalently with modern-day black culture.

But a recent trend of the style among white or European-American culture has called into question which culture the general public truly relates this African-rooted hairstyle with. These conversations come alongside movements like Black Lives Matter, Black is Beautiful and other black empowerment initiatives during the past few years.

One way to assess this larger conversation is by addressing seemingly accepted cultural norms like dreadlocks. The hairstyle is commonplace now among both whites and blacks. But there is more to the seemingly unkempt and careless style, and there is a lot more to it than not washing your hair.

While African-American culture isn’t remotely fragile, the dissection of the topic reveals a fragility that exists within the relationship between white and black culture, one that should be taken seriously, even if in regards to seemingly trivial topics like a hairstyle.

“Dreadlocks have long annoyed African-American women and men, but more so women, for the very reason of that they can wear their hair like that and look cool and then they can cut it and wear their little curls or wear their hair however it naturally grows,” DePaul psychology professor Midge Wilson said, who has co-authored three books regarding cultural appropriation. “It’s like, as my co-author Cathy Russell put it, ‘This is us, these are our features, we have them; we are stuck with them.’”

In other words, African-American women don’t have the choice to simply cut their locks, dress professionally, and go out to secure a job. Instead, they are faced with a multitude of challenges when working to prove the sense of professionalism that, realistically all women, but more so black women, struggle for in a male- and white-dominated society.

White women who wear the hairstyle can be seen as disregarding this aspect of injustice.

A Google Image search for dreadlocks reveals many white faces, though the hairstyle is rooted in African-American culture.
A Google Image search for dreadlocks reveals many white faces, though the hairstyle is rooted in African-American culture.

In an article published on Everyday Feminism, author Maisha Johnson writes, “The popularity of Eurocentric images says that being beautiful means being white, and that ‘normal’ hair is fine and silky . . . White women face sexism, and they may be oppressed in other ways . . . But when it comes to race, white women have more institutional power than Black women. So while we should be treated as equals, we’re not. A white woman is free to take on and take off the same hairstyle that a Black woman would be ostracized for.”

While white women are often praised for being “bold” or “chic” for wearing the hairstyle, African-American artists like Zendaya Coleman may be disrespectfully referred to as smelling like weed or patchouli oil.

But this sense of disregard is not universal, and even some of the most seemingly aware white  men or women can be caught wearing the hairstyle.

“I like to think that I’m pretty aware of the issues surrounding the controversy and the history of the hairstyle in general, including the many cultures that have worn it historically,” DePaul senior Liza Vasilyeva said, who has had locks for more than five years. “I think if my hairstyle were to be seen as ‘stealing’ something from another culture, I’d like to offer a deep-hearted apology to whoever feels that way.”

It’s this sense of awareness that many critics hope for when they see a white person with the hairstyle, but who are often disappointed.

Regardless of the awareness they may or may not have, Wilson said, white women wearing locks contributes to a larger issue of white culture continuing to downplay the African-American community’s opinion, and recent popularity of the style reinforces the fact that a white face leads to more sympathy and higher profit for white people than African-Americans.

“There’s a feeling of ‘We’re doing something and the dominant white culture is ignoring us like they usually do, but then they find something stylish that we’ve been doing and all of a sudden what we’ve been doing becomes increasingly popular, and that feeling is important.” Wilson said.

To African-American woman Zipporah Jarmon, 25, of Hyde Park, who has worn locs for almost six years now, this idea that locs have become a staple of Caucasian culture is particularly problematic.

“My problem isn’t with the white girl walking down the street with locs ­—  really am not the person to judge someone for that. It’s that when I Google search ‘dreadlocks,’ the first 500 images are of white people,” Jarmon said. “How does something that originates from black culture become represented by a white face?”

One explanation might be the differentiation that has evolved between “dreadlocks” and “locs”; the former referring to the white style, the latter referring typically to African-American men or women. A Google search of “dreadlocks” does indeed yield a sea of white faces, while a Google search of “locs” yields a majority of African American women.

But Jarmon goes on to site how this sense of white dominance has played out with other traditionally African styles as well, such as the Afro. In August when Allure Magazine published “You (Yes, You) Can Have an Afro,” they made no mention of the styles roots, and featured an image of a Caucasian female

Though Vasilyeva said she doesn’t believe her hairstyle is appropriative, she conceded that the pages of white faces on a Google search result of “Dreadlocks” is sad, to say the least.

“I guess in a way, coming back to the cultural appropriation, this certainly can be an example of that in an indirect way, and that is messed up,” Vasilyeva said. “Especially when this hairstyle has historically been a symbol of far more important things than what a lot of white people deal with day-to-day.”