1990s Burning Man — The Perfect Environmental Beginnings of Appropriation?


I recently wrote about the 90+ year history of how locs are a result of the 1930s Jamaica movement against racist British colonial violence. Beginning in Rastafarian culture it eventually made its way into pan-African Black Liberation Movements via reggae in the 60s. Challenging white supremacist beauty norms and standards, many artists and activists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Assata Shakur, and Angela Davis used locs as a politic of revolution and rebellion.

Activists since have continued the natural hair movement as an extension of a multilayered antiracist praxis, knowing full well how white supremacy culture must be challenged at every angle. However, this praxis has since been lost?ignored? derailed? by white people in general, and specifically white spiritualist people more specifically.

The 1990s was the perfect storm for the beginning of white spiritualist appropriation. This doesn’t mean it started in the 90s (white people have been appropriating things for centuries), however I believe that the nineties saw an influx of a multitude of pop cultural saturation culminating in a buffet-style method of cultural practice grabbing.

It was a time where steampunk, reggae, white rastafarianism, neopaganism, new age transcendentalism, hedonism, bohemianism, fetishisation, and orientalism were all influencing white youth culture in unforeseen ways. And I feel these things all converged in the US at Burning Man. A place where radical self-expression is annually nurtured and by all means wonderful, but nonetheless harmful in terms of appropriative cultural “hodgepodgery” under the guise of “eclecticism.” Honestly, it is very little shock that such a thing would begin out of “West Coast Spiritual style” culture and continue in white Burner/Rave/EDM/Neopagan subcultures.

Beginning this discussion opens up many cans of worms, but let’s stay on topic for a bit and hone in on the specific appropriation of locs (because let’s face it there is so much about Burning Man and appropriation that we could fill an entire book that I am not yet prepared to write).

Where white dominant culture to this day still demonises locs as “dirty and unprofessional,” literally writing racist heterosexist dog whistles into work and school dress-codes; white eclectic spiritualists seem to be shocked when they are confronted with accusations of appropriating this specific Black hairstyle with a history of Black liberation. So I wanted to do some research. Ever the anthropologist I wanted to find the answer to when and how the hell white people thought it was okay to do such a thing in the historical record.

Like I said, my research ultimately brought me to the 1990s Burning Man and white Youth Rave culture scenes here in the US and overseas in the UK.

The following is a photo essay of evidence I am compiling over the next few weeks. If you have photos you would like to add please comment below. If you have personal or historical narratives or stories specific to the “phenomenon that is white people with dreads,” please feel free to reach out to me.

Until then, please do what you can to challenge and ABOLISH any and all racist heterosexist dress-codes that continue to demonise Black and Indigenous hairstyles at work and school.

Burning Man (1995) http://picturebugs.blogspot.com/2011/09/burning-man.html
People on the street, Brighton Dance Parade (1997) People on the street, Brighton Dance Parade, Brighton, East Sussex, UK. Adrian Fisk. https://museumofyouthculture.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/C0000KQBLWdDl4rk/G0000wAaAKZRxlUA/I0000ZiW.W48QLRA?_cartAdd=t#cart/RM/G0000wAaAKZRxlUA/I0000ZiW.W48QLRA
Burning Man (1998) Mike Nelson
Burning Man (1999)Hector Mata
Burning Man (2003) http://picturebugs.blogspot.com/2011/09/burning-man.html
Burning Man (2005) Scott London

Anthropologist. Abolitionist. Cultural Critic.