Can we finally stop white spiritualist Dreads?

The Marc Jacobs New York Fashion Week line received much outrage in 2016

Dreads and Locs are not curly-locks are not plaits are not Fairy-Knots are not Elflocks are not…

When white people modify their hair, it is often to assimilate into white heterosexist supremacist beauty norms (straight, blonde etc.) or to indicate deviance from those norms as acts of rebellion or counterculture “freakiness.” Whether it is the mohawk or dreads, white people love going to extremes to stand-out from the norm: essentially as non-white, and where they see it as a badge of countercultural honour, others see it as disrespectful appropriation.

White people will go to great lengths to defend themselves from these accusations:

Some have said:

“Multiple sources credit Indian Vedic scriptures as depicting dreadlocks in 1800 B.C. Other early depictions of the dreadlock date back 3,600 years to the Minoan civilisation. Centred in Crete, art from the period depicted boxers from Akrotiri engaged in fisticuffs. In Ancient Greece, Kouros sculptures from the Archaic period depict men wearing dreadlocks, while Spartan hoplites (soldiers) wore locks as part of their battle dress. Celts were said by the Romans to wear their hair “like snakes” along with Germanic tribes and Vikings. There are even suggestions that early Christians wore dreadlocks in tribute to Samson, who was said to have seven locks of hair that gave him superhuman strength.” (The Overtake, 2018)

This is a classic example of white supremacist cuture. Why? Because white supremacy loves to ignore real history, universalise and lump cultural practices into general faux-universals in order to justify its claim to co opt and thus control. It’s cultural imperialism 101.

It dissociates the modern cultural practice of dreads now as an abstract historical commodity, strips it of its contextual importance, conflates it with other cultural hairstyles that are similar but not the same, and claims it for itself. Granted, there are white people who have become ascetics and Rastafarians; where they have been taught how to care for them as religious acts of devotion by cultural stewards… rebellious white teenagers and 20-something year-olds are less likely to go to these lengths however.

Modern dreads or locs historically can be traced to 1930s Jamaica during the Rastafari (Garvey) Movement by pan-Africanist/Ethiopianism activist Marcus Garvey in direct response to British colonial culture and violence. It increasingly became part of 1950s counterculture in Jamaica and was eventually made synonymous with reggae culture in the 1960s as many artists were Rastarfarians; most notably Bob Marley (Bryant 2017).

Though they are not dreads or locs, I want to mention here for a minute how in 1867, Frances Harper, “While touring with the American Anti-Slavery Society, free Black author Frances wore cornrows instead of mimicking white styles — a dramatic political statement at the time,” and how almost a hundred years later Cicely Tyson continued the legacy in 1964 “as a star on “East Side/West Side” being the first Black woman to wear cornrows on TV!” adding to the natural hair movement and empowering thousands(Essence Magazine (2011).

Getting back to dreads/locs during the same time Bob Marley was becoming globally renown in the 1970s, Queer Neo-expressionist artist and activist, Jean-Michel Basquiat; comrade Assata Shakur also made not only locs, but braids and cornrows a part of their art and activism.

In the 1980s locs became further popularised by Whoopi Goldberg in a different way, having “nothing to do with Jamaica, reggae, or the Rastafari.” (Essence, 2011) Professor and activist, Angela Davis, moved with the times away from her iconic afro, and wore locs in the 1980s. (Though she has brought it back in recent years.) With more and more celebrities and popular culture figures, dreads and locs became incredibly popular for other musicians. This ushered in a new wave of locs activism in Neo soul, R&B, hip hop, and hip hop soul music in the 1990s.

While cultural icons Lauryn Hill, Lenny Kravitz, and Lisa Bonet (Lawrence 2016) brought locs into the 1990s, Patra and Brandy gave us more braids, and Beyonce in 2001 brought cornrows into the new millennium. We could keep going, but I’ll leave that research for you to follow-up on. My point here is that there is a clear connection between activism and dreads or locs that spans 90+years in the Americas.

So how the hell and when the hell did white people decide they should appropriate it? How did a hairstyle connected to Black liberation for almost a century now become something white people wanted to wear themselves?

I scoured online databases for 1960s hippie-counterculture references. I found none.
I also looked into the beginning of the New Age movement in the 1970s. Nothing.
1980s. Again nothing.

Then the late 80s and early 1990s hit with youth rave culture, Burning Man, and New Age Travelers in the UK. (Meyerowitz 2012).

1990s New Age Travelers in the UK (Meyerowitz 2012) — very similar to fashions at Burning Man

Which led me to the 2013 study on “Jah People: the cultural hybridity of white Rastafarians.” In it, Loadenthal states: “By the early 1970s, reggae had become a main staple in radical concerts as well as other cultural events. In Britain, reggae made a large presence within the anti-racist and anti-Nazi movements. According to Horace Campbell, “these [Rasta] bands carried the culture of resistance to their concerts and were prominent in the cultural presen-tations of the Anti-Nazi League (…) in the UK [reggae culture] was part of the embryo of the diversified culture of non-racial Britain” (Campbell 1987, 200).” (Loadenthal 2013)

There is a prevalent narrative within the Rasta community that might be at the partial reason for mainstream white appropriation of dreads and locs. According to Loadenthal’s research:

“Throughout the narratives offered by these individuals, the messages remain the same — you do not have to be black to be a Rasta if you feel the spirit inside of you. The consensus among black Rastas and Rasta scholars is that Rastafari is felt and known in the heart not in the skin. White Rastas report similar experiences, and though some have had their faith questioned, most report that the acceptance and tolerance felt has been overwhelming. When asked about the im-portance of race, a 29-year old black Rasta man respond-ed, “Marry and love whoever if they are green, red, black, or white. It is all the one and the same. Really because color is a hindrance to understanding the beauty and depth of other people” (Bistarelli 1996, 56).”

This colorblind worldview may be the crux of the matter, as this phrase is a well known response by white people in their thirties, forties, and fifties. It seems that Rasta’s culture of racial inclusion added to the appropriative nature of white spiritualism in general. In essence, white spiritualists are using a foundational philosophy of Rastafarianism to justify their aesthetic appropriation and hiding behind a cloud of rave culture. The “we are all one, man” phrase has its roots in reggae, rave, and rasta culture. Add to this white people with christian trauma, seeking alternatives in Neopaganism; and you get what we see now: the consequences of the 1986 Burning Man.

A lot of us do not talk about Burning Man’s cultural impact enough. We always go back to Woodstock and hippie-counterculture. “Sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.” Hedonist Bohemian movements of self-expression… but very little to do with justice. We don’t talk enough about the racism problem at Burning Man. We talk all about free love, but very little about freeing our people from prisons and police surveillance. No one talks about the antiWar, antiSexist, antiRacist praxis of the Black Liberation Movements. Instead white spiritual appropriators continue to ignore the unpleasant and will quickly go into white fragility mode, attempting defense by attacking people for “gatekeeping.” Because white people conquered the world and so are entitled to everything as a universal right didn’t you know… *eye rolls*

And so white spiritualists with dreads forgo Black Rastafarian history entirely and say that the ancient Celts did it so it’s alright.

But this isn’t alright. Deflection in the face of accountability is never “alright.”

It doesn’t matter if Caesar once said “the Celts” (a lumped up term BTW to describe six very different languages and cultures) wore their hair like snakes. It doesn’t matter because this has been seen as a Roman smear campaign by scholars because there is so much evidence of Scandinavian, Germanic, Irish, Welsh, and Scots peoples for regular if not daily combing of their hair. We know that for the Irish at least “both men and women generally wore their hair long and loose, bringing condemnation from Anglo-Normans. That both genders had elaborately curly hair for ceremony and ritual days.” (Cindy 2011) We know they used braids and plaits, not dreads! (Archaeology Magazine, 1997). So the next time someone tries talking shite about how they aren’t dreads, they’re “Fairy-Locks” tell them to fuck off with that racist appropriative nonesense! Extraordinaire Old Irish scholar Morgan Daimler wrote an excellent article covering that Fairy/Elf-Locks were actually a sign of bad luck, madness, and the like (Daimler 2017). And besides, can we also stop with the weird Sidthe-want-to-Being while we are at it? It’s probably best to not mock the Other Crowd. The Good Neighbors aren’t to be messed with so lightly anyway unless you want to end up in a really bad situation. (But I digress…)

Anyway, it also doesn’t matter if Samson wore dreads in the Bible or not, because Samson was not white. What matters is that Samson was Jewish, and we don’t really know what his hair was like — we don’t know if they were actual locs or if they were just really long curls because translations are messy without cultural context. It doesn’t matter if we have found Egyptian mummies with dreads — some of the best archaeological evidence that we have — because we have no claim as white people over Ancient Egyptian culture!

The best thing I like to do is ask white people with dreads the following questions:

what is the hairstyle actually called within the living-culture itself? Are they actually adopted into the culture as practitioners of Jaṭā by Indian Sadhus? Do they know why we call dreads, dreads? Do they tell people about how English colonists in Jamaica called the hairstyle “dreadful”? Do they know about the Dreads vs. Locs conversation? (Chikwiri & Ema, 2017) Are they members of Nyahbinghi, Bobo Ashanti, or the Twelve Tribes of Israel?

99.9% of the time they can’t answer me. They can’t because it is just aesthetic and not at all connected to living religious culture. It is a prop for a rave, a fad only focusing on self-expression and not liberation. At worst it is a costume for Burning Man. Makes my stomach turn…

When Black and Indigenous people modify their hair it has historically been due to forced acts of colonial violence (US government & church crusades of cutting Indigenous hair), as acts of liberation/survival (braiding African seeds in hair & enslaved hair designs as escape routes), or is often in order to assimilate-as-an-act-of-survival into white heterosexist beauty norms. They do this because Black and Indigenous hairstyles are demonised, degraded, seen as “unclean and unprofessional,” and have been historically outlawed. Their natural and cultural hairstyles have been used to target them and increase their chances of being harmed via hate crimes and state-sanctioned violence.

“Black women and men have been ridiculed for centuries, as their hairstyles called dirty, their hair called too nappy.” (Butler 2015)

We see another cultural revival happening in the US where Afros and natural hair reclamation is becoming popular again as activist acts of joy — like it was in the 1960s. The natural hair movement is global and here in the US is rightfully confronting America with many important questions and calls to undo oppressive white supremacy cultural expectations, and challenging the many racist and heterosexist dog whistles within dress-codes.

White people, we can do this too by being accomplices by challenging white heterosexist beauty norms. But we don’t need mohawks and dreads to do this. We don’t need to invent “Fairy-knot” hairstyles removed and appropriated from Irish folklore. We can grow out our own hair, dye it any colour we want, use plaits and braids: hairstyles customary to our own heritages. But we need to do our research. And we need to be accomplices to overturn racist heterosexist Dress-Codes in our schools and at work. There is no such thing as “unprofessional” hair. It’s time to stop drawing attention to ourselves for the benefit of our own egos at the expense of others. It’s time to stop stealing and appropriating things out of their original contexts. If things are going to change we need to do the work. Together.

So get out there and start making some noise. Challenge those dress codes, challenge your friends and family when you hear them say racist and heterosexist things about Black and indigenous hairstyles. Use your privilege for the benefit of all of us!

Bibliography

  1. Archaeology Magazine https://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/bog/clothing2.html
  2. Bryant (2017) https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2015/04/86174/history-of-dreadlocks
  3. Chikwiri & Ema (2017) https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/locs-natural-hair-personal-journey
  4. Cindy (2011) http://irishfireside.com/2011/08/25/all-about-that-celtic-hair/
  5. Daimler (2017) https://www.patheos.com/blogs/agora/2017/10/elf-locks-tangled-hair-ill-luck-and-appropriation/
  6. Dreads v Locs https://going-natural.com/dreadlocks-vs-locs-an-intense-debate-about-the-origin-meaning/
  7. Essence Magazine (2011) https://www.essence.com/news/hairstyle-file-evolution-braids/#271936
  8. Meyerowitz (2012) http://www.teenagefilm.com/archives/archive-fever/new-age-travelers/%20
  9. Munson (2019) https://medium.com/equality-includes-you/the-cultural-history-of-dreadlocks-9dd40c8e5ac5
  10. Lawrence (2016) https://www.teenvogue.com/gallery/best-locs-moments-in-history
  11. Loadenthal (2013) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/307746461_Jah_People_the_cultural_hybridity_of_white_Rastafarians
  12. Raw Remedies (2018) https://rawremediesllc.com/history-dreadlocks-rasta-movement/
  13. Stijin P. Talloen (2019) https://www.chaosandcomrades.com/story/2019/7/11/i-am-a-white-man-with-dreads-i-dont-think-it-was-cultural-appropriation
  14. The Overtake (2018) https://medium.com/@overtake/are-dreadlocks-cultural-appropriation-b2489a271601
  15. Tiffany Joy Butler (2015) http://feministing.com/2015/11/24/white-people-with-dreads-phenomenon-needs-to-stop/

Anthropologist. Abolitionist. Cultural Critic.