Home / Sections / Culture / Yes, It’s OK for White People To Wear Dreadlocks
dreadlocks, cultural appropriation, white privilege, racism,
(Image: Anna April)

Yes, It’s OK for White People To Wear Dreadlocks

In an article posted on the Tab called Why it’s not OK for white people to have dreadlocks, Taiwo Ogunyinka painfully appeals to the sympathies of his readers why white people donning dreadlocks is just another example of cultural appropriation and white privilege. Muddled in his palaver and piercingly peremptory, Ogunyinka claims that whilst he doesn’t “know” why white people choose to wear dreadlocks, he nevertheless surmises three reasons. Not only that, Ogunyinka has saved us the trouble of untangling the implications of each possible motivation for why white people choose to culturally appropriate dreadlocks:

  1. “If you [white people] wear them [dreadlocks] as an appreciation of black culture, then by wearing dreadlocks and perpetuating white privilege as a result then aren’t you actually harming the black diaspora in the UK? If you truly cared for black people and not just our culture you wouldn’t want to wear dreadlocks.”
  2. “If you [white people] wear dreadlocks because it “looks cool” then you’re still perpetuating white privilege and you’ve chosen to be ignorant of the significant contemporary history.”
  3. “Finally, if you [white people] wear them because you think it symbolises a humanist ideal, then you’ve attached the wrong political meaning to them and instead you’re damaging the anti-oppression movement for which they truly symbolise.

Now, all three of these reasons sadly fail to clarify i) what this phenomenon ‘white privilege’ is (which does exist, of course), ii) why white people wearing dreadlocks somehow perpetuates white privilege, and iii) how dreadlocks necessarily implicates an anti-oppression which, enrobed by the privilege, weakens its significance.

Whilst it is tempting to write at length concerning how abstruse Ogunyinka’s argument is, isn’t there a larger issue here? Doesn’t the more salient question concern whether the unwitting or intentional act to segregate cultures as “this belongs to us, that belongs to you” – which finds its most emphatic expression in arguments against cultural appropriation – actually help redress racial ills or, in fact, does it perpetuate them? Whilst it goes without saying that cultures be portioned the [justified] right to exist without being threatened into oblivion, there are dire consequences that cultural exclusivity (exclusive to those who happen to be born into them) pose: epistemic consequences being one such example, and another example being the autocratic-like impediments to the flourishing of individuality in a society increasingly demanding conformism to pre-existing norms and conventions.

dreadlocks, racism,
White privilege is a term for societal privileges that benefit people identified as white in Western countries, beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people

I think the bigger issue Ogunyinka is trying to point out in his article is that cultural fads are crossing epistemological boundaries and resulting in “cultural appropriation” which present considerable problems in the “oppressed” cultural domains. Under cultural globalisation and the resulting trans-cultrural diffusion, the spaces between and within cultural domains are changing, as is the epistemic factors used to both acknowledge, institutionalise and perpetuate them. An extension of this process is homogeneity, the end of culture, the end of difference, and the forgetting of certain cultural histories.

The 17th century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, perceptive of socio-historical trends, argued that there is a tendency towards one unified world which would impede the existence of cultures. If true, one could certainly have sympathies for those in a culture – a domain which people come to identity with – who are struggling for, or historically have struggled for, recognition in a given society. After all, an understanding of oneself (and being identified) as a member of, say, black culture – something Ogunyinka would say necessitates that a person be black – subsumes a background of shared practices opened up within that cultural domain. Accordingly, to be a member of black culture, for instance, one is expected to have some set of the ready-made styles of behaviour, and other signifiers, and a shared intelligibility laid out in advance by existing norms and conventions inherent in that domain, which, Ogunyinka would argue, includes the legitimate choice of having dreadlocks.

However, even if it were true that the various cultures that we are born into, those things that provide us the pre-theoretical grasp of the structures that make possible particular modes of being in a particular cultural domain, and intercultural cognisance, find their boundaries blurred, should we not be striding towards an openness that permits us to dwell in many cultures and the capacity to move among them? Is it not possible to do so without consigning to oblivion a cultural domain, especially those which provide significant cultural insights concerning how our cultural world has reached its current state – like the anti-oppression movement within black culture which provided important historical achievements for society to learn from?

What is often overlooked in these debate is the fact that we are constantly making choices that reflect our understanding of who we are as individuals. There is something deeply problematic about the ready-made style of norms within particular cultural domains we are expected to follow (and not follow). By “doing what others like ourselves do”, e.g. adopting haircuts (supposedly) exclusively associated with white culture, we fail to own up to our own individuality. We eschew responsibility to make our own choices as individuals and, consequently, we fail to become the authors of our own lives. To the extent our lives are unowned or disowned, existence is inauthentic, not our own. This is especially paramount when one “appropriates” a cultural practice from one group whilst doing so with one’s foot in another cultural domain.

racism, dreadlocks,
By “doing what others like ourselves do” we fail to own up to our own individuality.

The refusal to be recognised as, or rather,  held as, an individual first and foremost in the cultural/political world, let alone being an individual, is one of the crucial linchpins why people cry foul at supposed acts of cultural appropriation. In acts of supposed cultural appropriation, people are seen as indispensably linked to, or rather ‘reduced’ to, a particular (primary) culture (e.g., white culture) whilst trying to “steal” things from another (e.g., black culture) and, at times, claiming what is stolen as belonging to their own primary culture. Thus, a person with light skin pigmentation wearing dreadlocks will be seen by certain people as stealing a black-culture element because that person will be seen as inexorably linked to white, western culture.

We all have the capacity to be recognised, or rather,  held, in the cultural/political world, as a) an individual first and foremost or b) as a member of a cultural group first and foremost. Members of white, western culture and members of black culture have the capacity to reduce some person x to  a cultural domain; and some other members of white, western culture and black culture can also see that person x as first and foremost an individual. Reducing someone to the cultural domains into which people are born perhaps is a ubiquitous occurrence, and perhaps all people have the capacity to adopt a communitarian philosophy as the main and almost exclusive vehicle by which a person is identified.

This explains the whole woeful, and increasingly used, claim that “you cannot understand group x because you are, say, white”.  One is reduced to their cultures, automata like, byproducts of cultural domains into which they were born, as being constrained by the background of shared practices (and a shared background intelligibility) that is exclusive to their cultural domain. Worryingly, this has been a longstanding social malady: the Nuremberg Laws, the Eight Banners under the Qing dynasty, the caste system in India, apartheid in South Africa, slavery and racial segregation in the US – all underpinned, to whatever degree, by a rationale that reduces an individual to a particular fixed cultural (or at times racial and social) domain without the epistemic and normative capacity to adopt and assimilate into different cultural domains if they should choose. 

Exclusive cultural domains ‘are anchored in othering’, whether people like Ogunyinka wants to accept that or not. Ruth Lister in her 2004 book ‘poverty’ defines othering as a “process of differentiation and demarcation, by which the line is drawn between ’us’ and ’them’ – between the more and the less powerful – and through which distance is established and maintained”. Ogunyinka, through maintaining cultural exclusivity by way of an appeal to socio-historical circumstances and the significance of these cultural forms, is othering one culture from another. The motivation may well be different but the end-result is the same. Social distance is not the answer to racial inequities – it sustains them.

Allowing people to freely shift cultures is important in that it provisions a much broader shared intelligibility than those contained in exclusive cultural pockets. An inclusive shared intelligibility provides an equal playing field in which individuals, irrespective of the cultural domains into which they have no choice to be born, can have the means to pursue the good life and be a party to what can most fittingly be called “experiments in living” – ways of being oneself exceeding the existing norms and conventions constrained by local, exclusive cultural domains.  The freedom should be afforded to every individual irrespective of the cultural domains into which they happen to born. Moreover, allowing people to freely shift cultures actually forestalls the incendiary distance between cultural groups. Martin Luther King pithily captured both of these points when he pithily said,

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools“.

racism, dreadlocks,
Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C.

Maintaining the idea, which Ogunyinka is surely implicated as doing, that cultural domains (and all its shared practices) be exclusive to those who are born into it by no fault of their own, especially true for black culture given the historical significance attached to it, one thwarts the fashioning of a broader shared intelligibility and, consequently, a heterogeneous cultural world in which people can engage in “experiments in living”. A heterogeneous state provides the conditions in which one can become an individual, authentic, ways of being oneself exceeding the existing norms and conventions provided by the cultural domains one is born into.

People like Ogunyinka will have to discern why it is that he thinks people can never truly assimilate into a different culture than that they were born into (thus explaining why someone with white pigmentation cannot not commit cultural appropriation), and why it is that a communitarian philosophy (must) be the main and almost exclusive vehicle by which a person is identified. Troubling for the champions of what Sarah Peace calls the anti-appropriation police is that the reductionist tendencies is on a par with much of the rhetoric coming from the European far-right who, in their choler over the politics of western cultural inclusivity, argue that outside groups are devoid of the capacity to successfully assimilate into their white, western culture.

Is it okay then for white people to wear dreadlocks? Yes. Why? The crucibles of difference calls for the building of cultural bridges, not the continued entrenchment of cultural walls.

About Benjamin David

mm
Benjamin is a philosophy postgraduate, writer and campaigner

Check Also

A Conversation with Peter Tatchell: Islamism, Multiculturalism, and LGBT Rights

In an exclusive interview with Sarah Mills for Conatus News, Peter Tatchell speaks about the …

17 comments

  1. Does this mean that black people should’nt wear ” straight/curly “white” hairstyles?

    • Black people have a natural curl pattern to their hair. What white people consider to be “naps” is a very tight curl pattern. Straight how ever is correct, pure african/African-American people don’t have naturally straight hair. They have to develop that pattern through ways of hair tools or products.

    • But white ppl are not the only race to have straight or curly hair…🤔
      The only reason that ppl of black heritage might want to straighten their hair or wear straight weave is because it is what makes them more acceptable in many standards or society….
      Take Malaika Maoh Eyoh; a South African girl who was in trouble because she refused to straighten or relax her afro hair…. despite being IN AFRICA. Now, think how difficult it would be in a “white man’s land”.

    • White people always have a way to justify their actions. its so sad,,, they always trying to cover up e truth.

  2. Dreadlocks is an African original man vibe. We all come from one of the 12 original tribes. Then we all migrated to our respective lands.
    So yes, before the so – called “white people” migrated to Europe, they were a tribe of Africans. All people have the right to represent the original man. Peace&Love.
    -Ras Massa Asonojah Aki. (Dreadlocks 23yrs.)

    • I love how you think Africans are the 12 original tribes? First off you are not. When the Jews left Egypt they went to Israel not back down to what is called Africa. The continent of Africa was named by the Romans who came after the Jews were created so sorry to burst your bubble you are not part of the 12 tribes. Let us say for arguments sake you are what have you done today that shows your Jewish identity? Did you pray? Wear Tefillin? Keep Kosher? Probably not so good luck with that

  3. I have two statements

    (1)change (white) to other people and change dreads to Hair extensions/Lace wigs/weaves.

    (2) People should do what makes them happy in a positive way.

    Peace & Blessings

  4. Some of the first known cultures to have dread locks, were actually of white skin color. There is documentation of the Celts “wearing their hair like snakes” dating back to B.C.. the Egyptians’ mummies have been discovered with them, also pre-Christ. And then the vikings, as well. Which is where the term ‘dread locks’ originated. They would dip their locks in oils and light them on fire, before pillaging villages. So how is cultural appropriation even the issue here? All ethnicities have at some point had dread locks… It is a personal journey, that anyone should be able to take part in if they choose. ✌

  5. WTF? I got dreds cause it is easy to handle. My hair was so long I was sitting on it..hung in ringlets..hurt arm could not brush hair..so stupid had nothing at all to do with listed reasons ..smh..such stupid people.btw white in south disabled 60 yr old. Who dngaf what ANYONE SAYS..😐

  6. It’s so easy to defend your actions when it comes to black people. Other cultures always steal from black people. It’s becoming the norm and when someone says anything about it we’re told to get over it.

  7. I know all about black folks hair. I’m black. My question is does it really matter? Aren’t we all borrowing each other’s hair styles, clothing styles, makeup, etc.

  8. People can wear whatever they want. Listening to people complain about what someone wears or does is disgusting. What is to say who made what and who makes them the police to ensure someone else doesn’t do it? Cultural appropriation is racism by definition. If you think cultural appropriation is a good thing then guess what you are racist in fact. Let people be and grow up

  9. Yes all few billion of us white people are exactly like that… :-/

    If I would be saying “Black people allways have a way to …”insert random negative claim”. Everybody would agree this is racist.
    But if it’s the other way around suddenly you have a different standard.

    This causes seperation and is in fact racist on your part to post this about an ethnic race.

    • Exactly. Being racist towards someone is one being superior and one being inferior. Saying you can not do something is because you feel that person only because of their race is inferior to you. That is what racism is. People need to understand that saying one person can do something just because of their race while someone can not is racism by definition. I do not think a lot of black people understand that.

  10. Based on Ogunyinka’s own logic, Jamaicans should not wear their hair in dreadlocks. That’s cultural appropriation from the Spartans (among other ancient cultures).
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreadlocks

  11. No, the missing argument and logic is that cultural appropriation is to profit from, popularise or utilise a culture or meme or art that has a singular source or origin that is largely contemporary. And to do so more align the overall culture towards a new audience and then fail to recognise or define the origins of the source itself.

    But this is not the case with hair. I am mixed race (Jamaican and British) and I have dreadlocks. They are not common, statistically so, in any country where a substantial white majority exists, not for any religious or racial or culturally negative reasons but because they are anything but natural.

    To fall into the trap of saying white people shouldn’t wear them is always going to be a flawed argument. They want the style. They think it will look good and they are not required by any stretch of logic to identify with, say, Jamaican culture. What for? I got dreadlocks for the same reason. And to presume, for all of us with dreadlocks have them for reasons other than the aesthetics IS the mistake.

    I, don’t care if white people want to have dreadlocks and I would hope that if I was in a band no one would say I was appropriating white music, because that is what I’m more likely to listen to. And that’s to do with immersion. In the UK, there are almost 60million people of which just black – EXCLUDING – mixed race people is about 2 million. In the US, out of 300 million, 13% are African American. So you are asking for exposure that the numbers don’t really allow.

    I mean, to really drive the flawed ideal of the subject home would be the ides of Black as a concept. Dread locks certainly aren’t African American. By definition they belong to the various areas of Africa (if we go by non ancient sources and not pseudo-legend). Rastafarians could easily say non rastafarians are culturally appropriating their culture and the idea that they are not required to be a rastafarian stands in direct contrast to pretty much all serious rastafarians.

    So it’s not black peoples hair in the first place. They are not homogeneous group even though African Americans have been trained to see themselves as such. Why would an African American have Jamaican hair? You don’t visit our country and live the lifestyle or have their beliefs etc.

    Skin colour and culture are the accidents of your birth and nothing more. There is always this fatal association of the person and the identity. Some outcomes are being. I have hardly any friends who are not white. Is that important? Not to me. But I know there is a Black British culture that we can say is specific and I feel outside of it. Does that bother me? Sometimes but should I also worry that being of two different races means that am not black enough to have them??

  12. vikings, that is Norse Scandinavian and the Germanic peoples, saxons, Goths, angles, as well as the Celtic people, Scots cornish, welsh, picts etc all wore dreads. the discussion is moot. it like asking who Invented the now and arrow.

Leave a Comment