Spoiler alert: it’s because I’m white

Shannon Burton
Mar 31 · 10 min read
Photo by Key Notez on Pexels

Yes, I’m aware that multiple societies on numerous continents at various periods of history and with skin colors of all shades have worn the hairstyle currently known as “dreadlocks”. Hear me out.

I’m a researcher at heart. I like to get to the bottom of things. After one too many debates on the topic, I decided to dig in and explore my inner cringe surrounding white, non-Rasta people wearing dreadlocks.

Buckle up and get comfy, folks; it’s gonna be a long ride.

Where Did “Dreadlocks” Come From?

While the style of dreadlocks has existed for at least 2000 years, the word “dreadlocks” didn’t appear until quite recently — in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s. Before then, and still today, they were called “locks”, “Jaṭā”, “matted”, “plaits”, “Mpɛsɛ”, and denoted by symbols and art in various places throughout the world.

The most recent incarnation of the style, however, and the one repeated meme-style across modern Western culture, is called “dreadlocks”.

Photo by Humphrey Muleba on Unsplash

The origin of the word “dreadlock” isn’t well-documented, but there are two likely sources for this compounding of “dread” (fear) and “lock” (tress of hair):

1. The “dread” people felt when they saw East African guerilla warriors, supporters of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (aka Ras Tafari). The warriors had vowed not to cut their hair until Selassie was freed from exile after leading the resistance against the Italian invasion of the 1930’s, and their hair became matted and “locked” over time.

Rastafari in Jamaica allegedly showed solidarity by joining in this vow, supported by Biblical verses saying to not cut one’s hair, and a belief that the Biblical figure Samson had dreadlocks, which held his strength.

2. A reference to the “fear of God (Jah)” and final Judgement that Rastafari cultivated through Bible study as the religious and social movement developed after its incarnation in the 1930’s. Before adopting the name “Rastafari”, honoring Haile Selassie, followers of the movement called one another “dread.” Many Rastafari still use the greeting today.

There is some suggestion that calling one another “dread” was also a nod to the fear British colonists had of the Afrocentric Rastafari movement in Jamaica at the time. Because of this and other reasons, there are many who prefer the terms “locks” or “locs”, removing the negative connotation of the word “dread” from the hairstyle name.

Most Rastafari continue to wear locks today. The look is compared to the Lion of Judah, which appeared on the Ethiopian flag from 1941–1974, and the locks were and still are seen as spiritual in nature.

Photo by Jakob on Pexels

Even without exact details, it is safe to conclude that the recent addition of the word “dread” to the style has clear roots in the Afrocentric Rastafari movement in Jamaica, which was a response to European oppression.

Locks Were a Spiritual Response to Oppression, and Oppression Inspired Music

In time, one Rasta in particular brought locks into the limelight with his music: Bob Marley.

It is Marley who can be credited with the most recent Western wave of the locked hair style. Because Rastafari religion dictates not altering one’s body for medical purposes, which could “interfere with God’s plan”, Marley refused cancer treatment via amputation after being diagnosed in 1977, and died in 1980.

While Marley is known by many for the “One Love” culture he inspired, taking the time to really look into his work reveals the oppression-focused Rastafari message he continually expressed: racism and oppression by European colonists against the African diaspora was a problem, and not everyone was equal in Marley’s lived experience.

Marley knew this, and he desired equality, but knew it hadn’t been achieved yet.

It still hasn’t.

Once you know this, it’s hard not to consider whether being a non-Rasta of European descent and citing Bob Marley or reggae music as an inspiration for wearing locks could be construed as ironic and insensitive. This is where discussions of locks and cultural appropriation tend to begin.

Photo by Quaz Amir on Pexels

Coincidentally, the same year Marley was diagnosed, post-punk band The Slits broke into the mainstream. Singer and co-writer for the band Ari Up, a white woman, was possibly the first white public figure to wear locks. (Shoutout to @chereefranco for cluing me into this tidbit!)

Ari Up was a reggae fan, Jamaica resident, and Rasta.

That’s right: a white woman joined the Afrocentric religious movement, wearing locks not as a fashion statement or personal choice, but as a spiritual one and in solidarity with the Rastafari (anti-oppression by Europeans) movement.

She wasn’t the only one to do it; I’ve known white Rastas (practitioners of Rastafari, not just white people with locks). Locks on white Rastafari haven’t instilled the same “squick” sense in me as locks on non-Rasta white people, but perhaps that’s just me.

Like Bob Marley, Up refused traditional cancer treatment and died in 2010 because she “didn’t want [her] Rasta locks cut off,” according to her stepfather.

Up and Marley wore locks for religious and spiritual reasons. Their appearance on stage in the 60’s and 70’s paved the way for fans to imitate.

Photo by Toa Heftiba Şinca on Pexels

A Recent Western Development: Non-Rastas Wearing Locks

Many people have imitated the locked hairstyle with regard for the aspects of Rasta or reggae culture they identify with. Most cite the locks as a source of self-acceptance, rejecting judgement from others, bodily autonomy, and an expression of freedom that’s low-maintenance.

But those of European descent often conveniently choose ignore, and arguably perpetuate, the heart of the Rastafari and Marley’s message which brought locks to our doorstep less than a century ago: European oppression.

For those who still experience European oppression, wearing locks takes on a much different connotation. Africans were kidnapped, enslaved, and had their hair forcibly shaved and regulated for hundreds of years. In many ways, they still are and do.

Freedom to wear hair as one pleases is something people of European descent have typically enjoyed throughout recent history. The same cannot be said for the African diaspora.

Modern Implications

Today, the “dread” associated with locks continues to be a source of discrimination for black people. An especially traumatic act included the public cutting of a black teenager’s locks at a wrestling meet in December 2018.

Some people (obviously not Rastas) say, “It’s just hair.” This is a lovely but ultimately untrue sentiment.

If only it were “just hair,” and not something people, especially black people, can legally be denied a job over in 2019. If only it were something that didn’t get kids, especially black kids, sent home from school, or even expelled. If only it were “just hair”, and we lived in a post-racial society where black people weren’t disproportionately discriminated against based on hair.

But we don’t.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

The desire and eagerness for everyone to just get along and “see beyond race”, as is often requested in this context, is well-intentioned but naïve.

Colorblindness is not the solution to modern racism; it is racism. Practicing (or pretending to practice) colorblindness diminishes the very real work necessary to move towards a post-racial society.

White people with locks provide the “optics” of a post-racial society without actually achieving it.

Perhaps “no one race or religion can claim a hairstyle” which has existed for thousands of years, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that black hair today is regulated and stigmatized, while white hair, and especially white locks, get to simply be a personal preference, or even a fashion statement.

When black non-Rastas wear locks, even when simply as a fashion choice, they do so at a disproportionately high risk of being denied jobs, housing, education, freedom from judgement, or even the ability to participate in school sports without someone taking scissors to their hair.

When white non-Rastas wear locks, they’re. . .not doing that.

Rewind: Before the “Dread”

The tragic truth is, the history of discrimination against black hair is deeply and painfully tied to slavery. Watching just half of this video on the topic is educational, but hard to bear (warning — images and descriptions of slave trade included):

(If you’re not in the mood for a video, here are the highlights: African hair, including locks, was a huge part of African culture pre- Western slavery, and varied from tribe to tribe. European kidnappers cut hair off Africans to erase identity and exert control, and banned traditional African hair styles for enslaved people. They also insisted that European hair was more attractive, an idea that persists today. Attempts by black people to reclaim their hair through grand styling met resistance, and some people were even placed in “human zoos” as displays for their hair. Dreadlocks made a return to black hair with the rise of Rastafari, and a push to reclaim black hair has continued since — explaining non-Rasta black people wearing locks.)

After putting black hair and locks in that context, the tragic comedy of Vice’s piece on the topic becomes clear: this article includes one of my favorite responses from white people when asked why they wear locks: “I have never had anyone [have] a direct issue with my dreadlocks.”

I’ve had friends point out that only their liberal white friends bring up white locks as an issue (guilty). But if one takes a moment to Google search “white people dreadlocks”, a results page full of opinions from black writers, YouTubers, and publications provides plenty of context.

Ignoring black voices on the topic of black hair is willful ignorance.

Photo by Cflgroup Media on Pexels

A Story:

(White) blogger Haifischgeweint toyed with the idea of wearing locks as a way to reclaim his body and hair after experiencing sexual abuse and gender dysphoria. He often felt mischievously encouraged by the angry self-righteous rants of the “Cultural Appropriation Brigade,” as he called the angry white liberals who argued with him about it.

In a 2015 post, he shoots down a number of arguments white people against white locks make, but admits that ultimately, he chose not to wear locks.

Why? After all his research, the final nail in the coffin was the likely racist origin of the word “dreadlocks”, and the persistence of the “dread” today:

“The point . . . is the reason why the term “dreadlocks” came into being in the 30s, along with the fact that a white person whose hair is in locks will never trigger such dread on sight alone. There is a very readily palpable fear of Black men among white people, who internalise [sic] the idea that the very bodies of Black men are inherently violent and threatening, regardless of what they are engaged in at any given time. This is why a Black man is executed by police every 19 hours in the United States. This is a terror that has been intentionally curated over centuries while serving as part of the foundational structures of white civilization.”

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on Pexels

Perspective

To choose to wear locks without giving thought to their recent history and the current discrimination against black hair is a privilege.

To wear locks and, when confronted, choose to highlight their more distant history in other countries/cultures, refusing to acknowledge the source of the current wave, is avoidance.

So is pointing to a black friend who is okay with it or the silence of black people who see white locks.

To know this history and choose to lock my hair, as a white person, would suggest that I don’t care about the painful history behind locks and black hair in general.

Yes, my hair is my hair.

Yes, I can do whatever I want with it.

I can also acknowledge that for hundreds of years, and still today, black people were and are not allowed to do what they want with their hair.

Black people continue to have their hair removed as their ancestors’ was after being kidnapped and enslaved, whether by forced choice for jobs and school, a wrestling coach’s scissors, or in a justice and prison system woefully biased against black people.

So, while I once used gel and hair spray in high school to achieve a temporarily “locked” look, after this research I can safely say that a) I’m sorry, and b) it won’t be happening again.

I’m not Rasta. I’m not black. It’s not my place.

I only speak for myself, of course, and this research is limited. There’s much I left out for length, and probably much more I (and every person interested in checking their privilege) should read and discuss.

I’m not worried. After all, I love research.

P.S. Want more? For an awesome article written by a black feminist touching on a number of other great points (honestly, she covers them better than I could), check out Maisha Z. Johnson’s 7 Reasons Why White People Should Not Wear Black Hairstyles.

Shannon Burton

Written by

Content writer curious about culture, social justice, and life lessons. Find out more at contentbyburton.com.

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