The history of dreadlocks will vary depending on which historical reference you site. But the truth is that dreadlocks have been worn by almost every culture at some point in time, regardless of its origin. It is a popular fashion staple for many people today, and in some cases, not at all linked to culture or religion (as in Australia, for example). There has been a lot of debate over the recent ruling that it’s okay to discriminate against an applicant or employee who wears locs. Unfortunately, some of the reasons behind this ruling may be due the misinformation and misconceptions regarding the style of dreadlocks. With all of the incidents happening in which people have cried “cultural appropriation,” it is important that we educate ourselves as to what it actually is.
Cultural appropriation: the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another (often more dominant) culture.
Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit on behalf of Chasity Jones claiming that dreadlocks are a “racial characteristic” and have been historically used to stereotype African-Americans as unfit for the workplace. They stated that dreadlocks are a hairstyle that is “culturally and physiologically associated” with African-Americans, so claiming that locs don’t fit the grooming policy is discriminatory and based on these stereotypes. The court of appeals disagreed, ruling that dreads are not “immutable physical characteristics” although they are “culturally associated with race,” and therefore the company’s policy is not discriminatory.
This is where things tend to get cloudy. And I’m about to say something that some may find shocking given the fact that I wore locs myself for over 10 years in the professional arena…
An employer should have the right to choose to hire employees that are in alignment with the representation of his/her brand.
The interwebs would have you think (if you don’t refer to the actual verbiage of the ruling) that discrimination against dreadlock styles in the workplace is discrimination against a particular race (i.e. Black people). But that is not the case.
The problem with the recent ruling that allows dreadlock discrimination in the workplace are the facts surrounding the case. According to the case file, a human resource manager commented on Chasity Jones’ dreadlocks saying, “They tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.” The company then revoked her job offer because she refused to remove her locs. The company’s decision seemed to be based on stereotypes rather than the work place itself — the stereotype that locs are “messy” and “unkempt.” Surprisingly to many, the fact is dreadlocks tend to dread faster the cleaner they are. People with dreads are encouraged to wash their hair more often depending on hair texture, to quicken the locking and matting process, so it’s really inaccurate to assume that people with locs do not wash their hair and keep it messy.
In 2015, Guliana Rancic of “E! Fashion Police” caused an outrage on social media when she joked that Zenyada’s Locs smelled of “patchouli oil” and “weed.” This prompted Zenyada to write an open letter where she said, “…There is already harsh criticism of African-American hair in society without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair. My wearing my hair in locs on an Oscar red carpet was to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of color that our hair is good enough. To me locs are a symbol of strength and beauty…” This incident was able to spark a national discussion about locs. For a hairstyle that has been revered and reviled, it’s important to have these discussions in order to dismantle every stereotype about locs for good.
We can all agree that there are certain looks that are more appropriate and expected in certain environments. For example, you would not expect to find a lawyer or political figure sporting bright red or purple hair. It is very unlikely that you would take them seriously if they did. Also, if your hair looks like you just rolled out of bed, it shouldn’t be surprising to you if your employer deems it unacceptable, unless you are in a work environment where free-form, creative expression is encouraged (these tend to be more entertainment and/or artistic types of work environments).
You have every right to wear your hair as you please. However, if you are determined to sport a look that is deemed “too extreme” for a particular work environment and are unwilling to compromise when employers advise you to change it, it is probably best that you go and build your own empire.
For example, I decided to stop relaxing my hair in 1996 and instead wear it in its naturally curly state. This was obviously way before it was a trend or a movement or common. As a soon to be college graduate, everyone (read: adults and elders) advised me to straighten my hair because it would not be accepted in the work world. I was somehow allowed this “creative liberty” as a free-spirited student, but choosing to go against the norm in corporate America would put my career prospects in serious jeopardy. I had a decision to make.
Want to know what I did?
I decided to stay natural. I decided that I didn’t want to work an any environment where I would be pre-judged and/or discriminated against because of the texture of my hair. It was a personal decision. Where there consequences? Yes. Did I get turned down for some jobs? Yes. But that was a consequence I was willing to accept because I felt my self-esteem was more important that someone else’s prejudice. Instead, I sought out work environments that would judge me based on my ability to perform and produce and not the hairstyle I chose to wear.
The truth is manicured locs can be just as professional looking as any straight textured style. Manicured locs are attractive and neat and can assimilate into any professional environment. What we should actually be focusing on instead is erasing the false social stigma that links dreadlocks with weed subculture and being unkempt.
Recently, a video surfaced which appeared to show a black student in a heated discussion with a white student who wore his hair in dreadlocks at San Francisco State University. In the video, the white students says, “You have no right to tell me what I cannot wear.” The woman started to refer to his hairstyle as an act of cultural appropriation and proceeded to tell him that he couldn’t wear dreads because it was a part of ‘her’ culture.
Although I can understand the young female students’ passion, it is misdirected and unfounded. The fact is that dreads don’t ‘belong to black people’ just because it’s a popular style worn by African-Americans in the United States. Many different races and cultures have been known to wear locs. Egyptian mummies that were recovered with dreadlocks still in tact were the first archaeological evidence that dreadlocks existed, but Vikings, Germans, and Celts were also known to wear their hair in dreadlocks as well. They have also been worn by Nazarites of Judaism, the Sadhus of Hinduism, the Dervishes of Islam, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Australians, Pacific Islanders, the Aborigines, the New Guineans, the Somali, the Galla, the Maasai, the Ashanti, the Fulani tribes of Africa, and many others. Even Sampson, an early Christian of the bible was said to have had seven locks of hair.
Recently, Marc Jacobs sent his (predominantly white) models down the runway wearing pastel-colored dreadlocks. This sparked a social media backlash; many people criticized the designer for styling the white models in dreads. They pointed out his appropriation of the style, and expressed that black culture was not even credited as the style inspiration. Marc Jacobs quickly dismissed these responses which angered people even more. On his social media page, he wrote, “And all who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race or skin color wearing their hair in a particular style or manner-funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair. I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race- I see people…” His comments sent the internet into a tizzy. By writing that, Marc Jacobs made the mistake of fusing appropriation with assimilation while also claiming that he was colorblind. Jacobs’ comment about black people straightening their hair, proves that his “colorblindness” statement is untrue. In response to Jacobs, someone tweeted pictures of the Marc Jacobs Beauty Collection which contains numerous shades that more closely match European complexions and only three shade options for people of color proving that Jacobs clearly doesn’t “see color,” as he stated but in a negative context. After a few days, Jacobs issued a formal apology for his “lack of sensitivity.”
Celebrities like Amandla Stenberg posted an in-depth explanation of cultural appropriation on the internet on a video entitled “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows.” In it, she touches on the misappropriation of black culture, from hairstyles to music. Grey’s Anatomy star, Jesse Williams also shined a national spotlight on the issue of cultural appropriation during a speech when he said, “…We’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil- black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.”
Despite the recent discussions on cultural appropriation, some are still confused as to where appropriating stops and where appreciating begins. The United States is made up of so many different ethnicities that cultural groups rub off of each other, and it can be confusing as to what the practice is. Typically, cultural appropriation involves the exploitation of the culture of less privileged groups by members of a dominant group. Groups often targeted for cultural appropriation tend to be African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans.
The reason why white people wearing dreadlocks is not cultural appropriation is due to the fact that dreadlocks have been around for thousands of years in many different societies all over the world including European countries. Dreadlocks also predates Rastafarianism although the term “dreadlocks” comes from the culture. The significance of locs varies from culture to culture. Given the rich history of dreadlocks, it is very difficult for one group to claim them.
Instead of being angry about what is perceived to be the cultural appropriation of dreadlocks, we need to be upset about the debilitating stereotypes that come with it. By openly discussing locs and educating ourselves and others, we can hopefully erase the stigma for those who choose to wear them and help our society to be more open-minded when it comes to differences of all types.