Is it ever OK for white people to wear dreadlocks?
One month ago, Free People, the retailer that specializes in bohemian maxi dresses and ripping off Native American designs, started selling what they called "clip-in dreadlocks" — and it wasn't even the first time.
"Add a little something extra to your 'do with these colorful dreadlock extensions featuring wood, bead and flower accents," the description of the pink and light cream-colored $128 clip-in locs read. "Comb-on application makes for easy on-and-off wear. Comes in a pack of 10."
One hundred and twenty-eight dollars to look like the lead singer of Counting Crows.
The internet swiftly issued a resounding, "LOL, no."
After all, these were pretty clearly not aimed at the kind of women or men who most commonly wear dreadlocks. These were aimed at white girls at festivals and, appropriately, both of the models on the Free People website who modeled these thick strands of ... cotton ... or yarn ... or rayon ... were white.
Since dreadlocks are a style typically associated with black culture, this was a clear example of white people trying to both profit from and emulate it. (The dreads were taken down shortly after our article was published.)
Although historians and anthropologists have found evidence of dreadlocks across many different cultures — from Egypt to tribes in Africa to Somalia and so on — it's white people wearing dreads that have caused the most ire. After all, while black people have been banned from school and fired for wearing them, white celebrities wear them like an accessory. Over the past year in particular, it seems like an increasing number of very privileged white people are taking them for a spin too. Remember Miley Cyrus at the 2015 Video Music Awards? Remember that Justin Bieber Instagram?
Just like the clip-in locs, the internet swiftly issued a resounding "nope" to Cyrus's and Bieber's appropriation. But what about white people who maybe aren't, y'know, privileged pop stars? Is it ever OK for white people to wear dreadlocks? And, if not, why not?
To answer that question, Mic asked three women of color about their thoughts as to why it may or may not be offensive, and why it may never be OK.
What's your first reaction when you see a white person wearing dreadlocks?
For the women we asked, their first reactions involved a lot of questions.
"Curiosity is the first thing," Jamia Wilson, who runs Women, Action and the Media, said in an interview. "Curiosity and context matters ... It's like, what is the inspiration and the context? And I'm also curious about whether there's an interest in the history and the connection to African culture."
The other reason why Wilson, who's had dreadlocks since 2004, is asking questions is because of how meaningful it was for her when she got them.
"A lot of times I'll be interested in what inspired them, because for me, it had to do with reclaiming natural hair when media tells me that my natural hair isn't worthy," Wilson said. "It's a reclaiming and taking ownership of my ancestry."
For writer Stephanie Smith-Strickland, it's hard not to judge.
"It's an internal side-eye that kind of happens," Smith-Strickland said. "I can't help side eyeing you a little. I mean, it's not necessarily the easiest hairstyle for a caucasian person's hair."
"I have questions. What inspired you? What does it mean to you?" Smith-Strickland continued. "Why this hairstyle? I honestly think that for most hair textures that are associated with caucasian people, it's more work than I would have to do. It's like, wow, you're really committed."
Is it actually cultural appropriation?
With many things that have been involved in an appropriation debate (cornrows, feather headdresses), the line isn't totally clear between appropriation and appreciation. The women we asked concluded that there's no real conclusion for whether or not a white person wearing dreadlocks is immediately cultural appropriation. It's all about intent.
For Wilson, the person's knowledge really determines if it can be called appropriation or not.
"I think with all cases with cultural appropriation, it's context," Wilson said. "Are people mindful of history? Are people using a critical lens with appreciation versus appropriation? Are they profiting from another culture without leveraging an origin or without acknowledging anything to do with the struggle?"
But for Smith-Strickland, the issue is less cultural appropriation, and more the stigma against people with dreadlocks in general. To see an example of that stigma, remember when Giuliana Rancic said that Zendaya must smell like "patchouli oil" and "weed" after Zendaya attended the Oscars wearing dreadlocks? It's a particular brand of discrimination that Smith-Strickland has faced herself since getting dreadlocks in 2008.
"The issue is less the hairstyle and more the dynamics of race and the perceptions of one person doing something and another person doing the same to different results," Smith-Strickland said. "If you were a person of color and you had locs, there was an assumption that you were dirty. But now I see non-people of color with loc'd hair, and those assumptions automatically don't come for them."
So what's the real problem here?
Given that those assumptions don't normally apply to white people, there's an obvious privilege here at work. According to two of the women we asked, the problem for them is that seeing a white person with dreadlocks immediately reminds them of the privileges they don't have.
"I think there are implications related to power and privilege that relate to this style," Wilson said. "Whenever I go through TSA, I am checked and I actually paid money for pre-check so I wouldn't get patted down. It became something that I had to add extra time for. I have really long locs and this is going to be the pattern and I don't know if that is experienced by white people."
Smith-Strickland echoed this sentiment as well.
"When you see people not of color loc'ing their hair, it shows the history and the creations of minorities are ghettoized when they do it," she said. "It takes a person who's not a person of color to make it appropriate."
For Patrice Peck, a co-founder of the beauty startup called CRÈME — which brings professional hairstylists and makeup artists to women's doorsteps — the problem here too is that it shows exactly how some people pick and choose what they like about black culture, and forget about the rest.
"The real problem is that it goes back to that phrase, 'Everybody wants to be black until it's time to be black,''" Peck said. "It's just considered sort of offensive to me personally when other groups want to pick and choose what they like out of black culture but then they don't want to help combat these issues that black people face as a group. So it's this sort of mining and exploitation of all of the richness of our culture while not wanting to address any of the other things that we're facing."
Are there any situations where a white person wearing cornrows wouldn't be offensive?
The key here, according to these women, is that if you're a white person wearing dreadlocks or any other hairstyle traditionally worn by people of color, it's important to acknowledge the past or, at the very least, not act like you're representative of the black community at all. In other words, you need to be woke as fuck.
"I honestly think it really just comes down to awareness," Smith-Strickland said. "You know, like, even for someone like Kylie Jenner. I don't know what she's thinking, but when I see her wearing cornrows and the next day I see Cosmo writing about them, it's like, are you serious? On some level, it'd be nice if she had enough awareness of being like 'I'm aware that me wearing this hairstyle means something different than the little black girl who's told by her teacher to leave the classroom because of it.'"
Wilson thinks similarly.
"I'm ultimately about free expression," Wilson said. "I think if I saw [a person] claiming to speak on an entire community of loc-wearers, and he's like a white cisgender male, that would be problematic to me. Or people who would be profiting off of it without recognizing the history and the background. I think that's why people were upset about Free People. That was the icky factor."
For Peck, though, the blame shouldn't be as much on the white person as it is on corporations like Free People that are trying to profit from black culture.
"I'm not offended by a white person wearing locs but I'm offended by another entity trying to profit from black culture while not even acknowledging or contributing back to black culture," Peck said.
Definitively, is it ever OK for white people to wear dreads?
According to the women we asked, it can absolutely be OK on a case-by-case basis, with explanation from that person. No one's trying to police anyone. There just needs to be more context.
"I think people's feelings should always be considered, but I don't feel comfortable saying that someone can absolutely not do something," Smith-Strickland said. "If I sit down and talk with you, your intent should be good. Everything like that needs more context, though. Rather than just appropriating something, why not make yourself an advocate for something you love?"
Wilson thinks similarly, stating that it all depends on how that person is wearing and honoring the style.
"I think it's nuance that's needed. I think it's OK to wear the style that makes them feel confident and powerful and beautiful, but we do have to be mindful of our identity as it relates to this style," Wilson said. "That's the same issue with people wearing headdresses. Treating a cultural adornment like it's Halloween 365, that's problematic. That is the issue to me."
But for Peck, the problem still isn't exactly white people wearing them, but the negative connotations when black people wear them — and the fact that they aren't getting credit where credit is due.
"I do think the issue isn't necessarily with white celebrities wearing the hairstyles," Peck said. "I think the problem is needing to sort of go back to the source ... and seeing how we can sort of get rid of those negative connotations and celebrate black hairstyles on black people. I just know that I want black people and particularly black women to get credit for the hairstyles that are born from our rich history of creativity and that's not happening."
Case in point: Free People's clip-in dreadlocks.
So although the thought of easily changing up your look to impress your 16 Snapchat followers might seem like a ripe reason to throw in some dreadlocks, for many, it's a form of erasure and a reminder of white privilege's perpetuation.
Wearing dreadlocks shouldn't be about trying to look edgy at Burning Man, but about respecting and appreciating a culture. If you want to wear that style, and you happen to be white, you have to be woke as fuck.