Friday, February 19th, 2010...2:12 pm

White People Shouldn’t Wear Dreadlocks: Thoughts on Appropriating Culture

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There was a debate over lunch in the Berkman Center kitchen today over whether white people (or Asian people, for that matter) should wear dreadlocks. I’m of the opinion that it’s a terrible idea, though at the time I couldn’t really articulate why without sounding like I was being snotty and judgmental. My gut reaction when I see a white kid with dreadlocks is to roll my eyes–this kid is trying way too hard to be something he’s not. What I think is behind that is something my friend David raised on his blog earlier this week: Western appropriation/importation of cultural memes from other countries. (Note: I *think* we’re still friends though I have to wonder after his blanket denigration of female/male friendship at the beginning of his post).

There’s an interesting discussion in the comments about what counts as Western importation: David thinks the list of Western imports would be short, though I think I’m with Nick. There are TONS of things that we’ve imported from other cultures. The problem is, like with white kids wearing dreadlocks who CLEARLY aren’t rastafarians no matter how much Legend they’ve listened to, we don’t also import the cultural meaning behind them. I’m sure it’s all well-meaning, but it’s also really clumsy. First, it smacks of trying to run away from who you are. As much as we may not like it, where we come from matters. I’m all for cross-cultural appreciation, but there are ways to enjoy and appreciate other cultures without losing your own authenticity. There’s got to be a level of self-awareness and humility involved. Second, when appropriated the symbols tend to lose any importance or context and just get swallowed up into our own ethno-centric view of what they *should* mean (how many times have you seen someone with a Chinese/Japanese tattoo who clearly doesn’t speak the language?). This sort of appropriation is different from the remixing that Nick talks about in the comments on David’s post because all respect for the original meme is lost.

At the end of our lunch discussion, I was convinced that it’s not ALWAYS wrong for white people to wear dreadlocks.  Only 90% of the time.  And if they do, they better actually be rastafarians or have been adopted by Lenny Kravitz.  Otherwise, ride that good hair thing out.


  • I think it’s okay for anyone to adapt any cultural thing to themselves. It’s not my fault that I was born white. If I want sticky thick dreaded hair then why not. I think more importantly are the reasons behind someone doing something. If you wear dreads just to get attention or to fit into a crowd you want to hang out with that’s lame. But if I wanna learn Chinese because it’s interesting to me then cool. I wouldn’t get a Chinese character on my arm unless I could read and speak a little first.

    So I guess I agree with you in regards to 90% of the time it’s wrong. I think this is simply because 90% of the population are morons who will do anything for attention or to fit in.

  • it really shouldn’t be a big deal if a white person wants to wear dreadlocks. what would you say if someone said black people shouldn’t wear something associated mainly with white people?

    i think a larger issue at play here is that it would be seen as a step back for a white person to want to assimilate into a black culture. at the same time it would be seen as forward progress for a black person to want to assimilate to a white culture.

  • I highly support your stance. If you search on my blog, you will find my feelings on the matter, which at times rant and at others, have some basis in reality. I’m not going to link directly to the posts as only in the last month or two have I stopped receiving constant hate mail about the topic from those who I assume wear them. I had no idea people got so up in arms about something which, for white folks is really a fashion statement. It’s also amazing how those who wear them are unable to write English and constantly confuse “your” with “you’re” when ending a sentence with “an asshole”.

  • did you know that dreadlocks have actually been dated all the way back to one of the first indian civilizations, Not only that, but egyptians wore them, greeks even, Asian emperor, who were clearly regarded highly, wore them. dreadlocks is something we had since the down of time, so a white man.
    if all of these people wore it, why all of a suden a white man can’t wear it, why, because a black man is wearing it. Besides, dread locks looks good on white people.

  • You think that rastafarians were the first people to wear dreadlocks? Or even “black people” for that matter? Its funny to me that some people tend to claim dreadlocks as their own culture, when the truth of the matter is, dreadlocks have been around for centuries in places and tribes all around the world, for various intents and purposes. Most of them do have a spiritual or hereditary reason, but seriously do you think Little John or T-Pain do it for a spiritual reasons? They do it for fashion reasons, only its ok because they’re “black”. I agree with Justin and the bigger picture.

  • “i think a larger issue at play here is that it would be seen as a step back for a white person to want to assimilate into a black culture. at the same time it would be seen as forward progress for a black person to want to assimilate to a white culture”


    If you weren’t ignorant, you’d know that black people tried to assimiliate into white culture, but was constantly denied to do so because we were brought here for one thing only: to be your property (and your entertainment-musically, sexually, etc.) so we’ve decided to further adopt our own…

    Besides…black culture…white culture…what about American culture? Because both cultures are influenced by each other and compose American culture.

    I guess a real American culture would be one that ensured that Constitutional rights were enjoyed by all regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, physical abilities, religion…haha I wish.

  • I support your stance completely. Locks are more than a style statement. I often hear the defenses listed above. (Robert’s assertion about “sticky” locks actually confirms the disgustingly unhygenic way in which White’s have to avoid grooming to generate locks whereas Blacks don’t.) People disregard cultural context when they have never had their culture compromised. This is why white people think nothing of getting Chinese or Japanese character tattoos. let my brown ass get a Celtic cross tattoo and let’s see what happens!

  • I’m from Northern/Eastern Europe, and I just few days ago heard that some people consider white people with dreadlocks practising cultural appropriation. However, there have been many other people than just Rastafarians wearing hair in a way similar to dreadlocks; in ancient Egypt, in India still today, and surprise: even in Europe the celts and vikings and some other people have worn their hair that way.

    I understand that in Northern American context this is a bit different, since there has been a history of black slavery, and black resistance. So seeing a white person with dreadlocks apparently more easily gets read as someone taking from the black culture. However, I hope that when speaking of white people, or black people, it would be considered that they are not homogenous groups with the same kind of backround. If you’re talking about white/black culture in some spesific place, please specify where. Just talking about for example white people in general when actually referring to white Americans is a bit ethnocentrist, don’t you think?