When I started locking my hair almost seventeen years ago, I was searching for myself. In fact, I was, as Zora Neale Hurston wrote of Janie in “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” trying to “struggle with life” and struggle, especially, with my Blackness. I had long loved Caribbean culture and the physical beauty of locs- the way they hung like rope or stood up like tree branches. But I knew that my admiration of their beauty wasn’t enough. I needed to learn their spiritual and cultural significance– that the Ancient Egyptians donned them, as well as Indian sages and Ethiopian priests.
Looking back though, what I needed to learn most was that locs were revolutionary.
I needed to wrap my brain around the spirit of resistance represented by both the Rastafarians (of Jamaica mainly) and the Mau Mau (The Kikuyu of Kenya), who chose to rebel against both colonialism and expectations of assimilation forced on them by the British, simply by letting their hair grow in its natural state. I was developing my own revolutionary consciousness then. I too wanted to be free, and shake away all of harmful ideas I had adopted about what made me beautiful as a Black woman.
I understand the young Black female student who challenged her White schoolmate for wearing dreadlocks and eventually grabbed him up. Of course she was wrong for touching him in any way, but I can identify that fury. I recognize what it feels like when your Blackness is a journey, when it is hard won, and how difficult it is to see others adopt parts of it without doing the work to know what those parts actually represent. I have been young, and passionate, and brand new to feeling my Blackness in a very deep way. So, even if I hadn’t touched the White student with dreadlocks, I probably would have said something to him, and it likely would not have been kind.
And Justin Bieber can catch these words too.
When the star spoke about his brand new and bleached blonde dreadlocks being “just hair”, I wondered if he observed that the Black people who made locs popular in the U.S. and throughout the African Diaspora were militants who hoped and worked to annihilate their White oppressors— men who looked just like The Biebs and that White student from San Francisco State. I’m going to guess that Bieber has no clue that dreadlocks could be so radical. That the Kikuyu who wore their hair in locs were captured and tortured after the Mau Mau were defeated by British soldiers. That wearing locs can mean being ostracized even today. Seeing that both men are protected by a combination of privileges (class and education, status and fame, maleness, Whiteness), I’m sure they get along just fine in the world whether they are wearing dreadlocks or not. The privilege of being able to wear locs sans scrutiny, while simultaneously not needing to know anything about their history is what pisses Black folks off.
It is maddening that White people love the culture that we produce so much—whether it be dreadlocks or Drake, but seem ambivalent towards our suffering and what it costs to create such a gorgeous culture in the face constant erasure and hate. And, yes, Whites wearing dreadlocks absolutely is cultural appropriation. Justin Beiber’s response that his dreadlocks are just hair, speaks precisely to the fact that he has disconnected locs from their history and cultural significance. That, folks, is exact definition of cultural appropriation.
And, no, Black women wearing hair weaves and relaxers is not cultural appropriation too.
Black women cannot detach European culture from our three bundle weaves and silky smooth, freshly permed edges. We are socialized to believe that long, flowing, European hair is beautiful and alluring. Even Black women who wear hair weaves as accessories (I most def have), and could care less about Euro standards of beauty, cannot divorce those standards from the looks they choose. There simply is no erasing Whiteness anywhere in the world, and the sooner we all can admit that, the sooner we can get on with the healing we all so desperately need. Even more, assimilating towards Whiteness is believed to be the key to success, not only in the U.S., but around the world. People of color believing that White is right is absolutely the foundation of historic imperialist power structure and the hyper-capitalist beauty industry of today.
Now just because Black women aren’t appropriating culture when they wear hair weaves doesn’t mean that Black folk can’t practice cultural appropriation like Justin Beiber and Kylie Jenner and Miley Cyrus. We follow trends adopted from various (minority) cultures around the world, and most of the time we have no idea what those trends mean or represent culturally. Remember last summer when we were all running around looking cute and wearing Indian bindi jewels, knowing nothing at all about the Hindu spiritual concepts often attached to them? That’s cultural appropriation. Wearing all those faux prints inspired by Indigenous American tribal patterns. Hell some even believe Black Americans appropriate African culture, although I beg to differ.
The bottom line is this, we should only borrow from cultures that we recognize, study and celebrate. And as Black people, we can’t complain about our culture being appropriated by Whites when we appropriate the cultures of other people of color. We have to be willing to love the way that we want to be loved in the world.
Josie Pickens is an educator, culture critic and griot. Chat with her on twitter: @jonubian