I was inspired to write this post after being asked what my thoughts were in regards to the claim that white people who have dreadlocks have culturally appropriated this hairstyle from black people, and as such it is offensive to them. This is my take on it ...
I am South African by birth, and although I moved to the Uk when very small, I have been back to South Africa many times in my life. I have many family members who live out there.
There is nowhere on earth that I know of that racism and white privilege is more obvious and in such constantly culturally clashing contrast, between white and black people, as in South Africa.
The last time I went, I had dreadlocks, and I can't tell you what a different experience it was to be a white person, backpacking on all the forms of transport that only black people use.
My white privileged family told me firstly that there wasn't even a train system running anymore. Wrong. But only back people use it. I was told I would get raped and murdered and that I would deserve it (by my grandmother of all people). But I went anyway. White South Africans live in a lot of fear. Probably because deep down they know they have a big karmic debt to pay off.
Normally, a white person in South Africa will be met with a wary and mistrustful response at best, and a hateful response or complete non-acknowledgement at worst, by black people (strangers) when out and about, but especially if they are in what would be considered black areas.
As I walked through Johannesburg train station, the only white face in the whole place, I was looked at with curiosity by many, and as a group of Rastafarians walked past me, their dreadlocks worn with pride, I was met with big friendly grins, and a loud " Eh !! Rrrrrrasta !!!!"
Shouted at me and warm nods of acknowledgement.
This happened time and time again in my travels through South Africa. And it wasn't only the Rastas that acknowledged me this way. African tribal people also noticed and acknowledged this difference between me and other white South Africans, based solely on the fact that I had dreads. I tried on several occasions to explain that I wasn't a Rasta, that I was actually a Pagan, and that my hairstyle was, more than anything, a practical choice. but no-one seemed interested in my explanations at the differences between us. More than anything, they saw it as a sign of solidarity.
They knew that it was a symbol of anti-establishmentarianism, and it didn't matter that I was white. I was no longer just a white oppressor. I was resisting the oppression along with them. I was moving beyond the powerfully programmed cultural fear that white people in South Africa have of black people, to travel among them, sharing stories and experiences on the way.
White people in South Africa do not dread their hair. I saw two other whites with dreads in the whole time I was there, even at a big new year hippy festival.
And I felt A LOT safer travelling in South Africa with my hair dreaded than all the times I have travelled there with normal hair. I had been subtley accepted. Because of my hair. And only my hair.
So which black people are right then ? African Americans, who claim that whites who dreadlock their hair are appropriating their cultural style, and are therefore offended due to the history of white oppression of black people ? Or are the Africans right? Just the Rastas ? African Rastas or Jamaican Rastas ? What about the Ethiopians, where Rastafarianism originates ? Has anyone asked them ? Is this a racial issue, a religious or a cultural issue ? Which people have the right to claim dreadlocks as their cultural property ? Or is it really a sub-cultural thing ? In which case, its not a racial thing at all, but a cultural thing. In which case, why are black people who are not Rasta's getting involved in the arguement ? Is it just another way of claiming racism where it doesnt really exist ?
The Rastas in South Africa appreciated me and my dreads because they felt like we understood each other on a deeper level. On a political level AND a spiritual level. That we were on the same side. That we wore our hair like a badge that told the world whose camp we stood in.
My family couldn't understand why random strangers were warmly shouting "Eh !! Rasta !!" At me and grinning and waving on regular trips out. A completely different reaction to the one that they would ever get as white people in South Africa. They were completely baffled and mystified by it.
So there is a little bit of personal real life experience rather than just postulating politically correct cultural theory at each other.
On a completely different tangent, I would say that dreadlocking hair is equally as culturally practised by travelling people of various different ethnic and cultural backgrounds as it is by those of African origin.
And this was the main reason I chose to dreadlock my hair. For the practical reason that I would not have to wash it everyday.
I'll tell you what privalege is : having unlimited amounts of hot and cold running water to wash your hair with every day. Unlimited amounts of power for your hairdryers, curling tongs and straighteners !! When I bought my boat, and started carrying every drop of water I used, from a tap half a mile away, I soon decided that I was not prepared to spend that amount of time and energy on 5 litres of water to wash my hair every day to look vaguely presentable to the rest of the world.
12 volt electrical systems will not support the power hungry electrical gadgets of the hair styling world !!
Carrying all your water and living off-grid on solar power does not support modern hairstyling !!
So I dreaded it.
This made sense to me not only on a practical level, but also an ecological one. Think of how much water I have saved by washing my hair every 3 months or so, instead of every day, for the last 13 years. doing a rough calculation, that comes to nearly 24,000 litres of water. thats quite a lot, isnt it ? And thats not including not having a bath or shower every day, but washing out of a bowl for 13 years. apart from birthdays and mothers days now, cos i do actually have a bath with hot and cold running water. I just dont use it. Cant break the habit now !
And Think of how much power I have saved by not hair drying and styling every day for 13 years. (Dont have a way of quantifying that one for you, I'm afraid !! Its also gonna be a bloody lot ).
My carbon eco-footprint is grinning with smugness at all that, let me tell you !
Travellers have dreads because it is by far the most practical and sensible hair to have. We also don't have toasters, electric kettles or all the other ridiculous power hungry gadgets you house dwellers think are so essential. So tell me again about privalege ? When you have carried every drop of water you use for a mile, for a year, then you can tell me I can't have dreads, how about that as a challenge ?!
And if you think about it, this practical reason probably has a lot of roots in African dread locking culture. Very little hot and cold running water there. Even less plug sockets. I fear this really is a First world argument. It has been over intellectualised and over politicised by those who have an axe to grind, by those African Americans who in comparison to their African brothers and sisters, are also living a life of privalege. They may well be poor, and the targets of cultural racism. But they probably have running water and power, yes ? It's all relative, isn't it ?
The other reason I have kept my dreads is that when my hair is 'normal', it is pitifully thin, doesn't do anything vaguely pretty, won't stay in any kind of style I ever try to put it in, and basically looks shit.
I have hated my hair for my entire life. It is a running joke in my family that mine, my mothers and my grandmothers hair is so thin it just won't do anything. Since having dreads, it does interesting things, it stays where I put it. I can do loads of funky things with it. It has kinks and curls instead of being deadpan flat, boring and looking like somebody has scalped me ! I like the way I look with them. It is a personal vanity thing. And also a confidence thing. They make me feel more powerful. Not over anyone else, or to their detriment. Just powerful within myself. Somebody once said I looked like Medusa. I like that. Head full of snakes. Snake hair. Powerful.
I also like my dreads because I am lazy, and I like being able to 'do' my hair in about 10 seconds, instead of the laborious and time consuming waste of an hour or so that used to be the daily ritual of hair washing, drying and styling that I used to go through every day. To be honest I have much better things to do with that hour.
And I would be lying if I didn't admit that it was also a political choice. A fuck you to established expectations of presentation. A symbol of my resistance, rebellion and non-conformity. A conscious act of political and cultural resistance.
And in this sense, I stand alongside my African brothers and sisters. I am not in conflict with them. I wish to take nothing from them. I acknowledge all they have had taken from them. Believe me, you dont know racial guilt until your own family have had black maids, gardeners etc. But I really don't think arguing about hair is going to solve those injustices.
The white oppressors have oppressed us all. In varying degrees, yes. And in various different ways. But we are all fucking oppressed. Unless you are in that 1%, you are repressed and controlled in most aspects of your life.
To me, dreading my hair is just breaking another link in the chain that ties me down to a system that exploits me.
It is a claim to freedom. Why should only black people have the right to cast off their shackles via their hair. I want to chant down Babylon just as much as any Rasta. I am a witch. A woman. A healer. I am also persecuted and prejudiced against, by Old White Men, as my kind have been for centuries, nay, millennia.
And in this sense, it connects me to the final reason that I have dreads. It connects me to and reminds me of my wild self. It is an expression of that untamed and primal self. The self that does not want to be styled and manicured. Presentable and acceptable. The self that wants to feel free and unshackled, liberated to express myself and my body in a creative and personal way. In an ancient and instinctive way, in a wild and shocking way.
This is probably why I have tattoos and piercings as well. There is something undeniably ancient about marking yourself in an individuated manner. And a yearning for a simpler less complicated life. More basic. Reaching back in time to ground myself in a reality that is not so crammed full of information and images. That is not so hyper-real. but that is really real. If left to my own devices, I probably would have ended up witching in a cave, with no mirrors or sense of what my hair was up to. What would it look like ? Dreadlocks ! But I live in the modern world, and my other half dragged me kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and thrust running water upon me. Very glad for it now I have kids, I can tell you !
And there is something in there as well around Rites of Passage. I have always chosen to mark myself, tattoo, pierced or dreads, at transition points in my life. I dreaded my hair when I became a traveller. A boat person. I cut them all off and immediately re-started a new set of dreads when I became a mother. This was not a conscious Rite of Passage choice at the time, but I can see with hindsight that this was a powerful synchronicity.
And finally, I believe in autonomy. As a spiritual principle. I don't believe that anyone can tell me how I should or shouldn't have my hair, my body, my clothes, my lifestyle. It is my life to choose how I live. The Creator gave me that blessing. No one else can lay claim to it. And I extend that to everyone else in the world. I do not believe it is any of my business to tell anyone else what they should or should not be doing.
I don't think that The Creator has the slightest interest in how I have my hair. Which tells me that it is not remotely important. It is an issue of ego and nothing else. And as such it is immaterial.