15 October 2009

Some thoughts about dreadlocks on a white woman.

Reading the post on how white folks ask black men wearing dreads for weed made me think again about my own dreadlocks.

I decided to get dreadlocks to see how it changed the way people related to me. I had observed this effect with other people, and I was curious enough to explore it for myself. Unfortunately, I didn't think about what a high maintenance hairstyle dreadlocks are for a white woman. I didn't want to fill them up with cement, but I had never before had a hairstyle that required any maintenance. However white dreadlocked hair needs a lot of maintenance, and often just looks scruffy, dirty and matted.

Some things did change in the way people related to me. What I noticed most having locks were the ways white people tried to ally themselves with me, simply because I had locks.

White people spoke more, and more loudly in front of me about drugs. I got a lot of people casually mentioning what drugs they were on in a loud voice once they saw me, and others who didn't bother to lower their voices when I passed them talking to each other about drugs in the street. I never realised before just how many people are talking about drugs in the street.

I thought the little old ladies would start being afraid of me and stop telling me their life stories at the bus stop. But no, they didn't change, and I even got a compliment or two on my lovely hair from ones who couldn't see properly.

One of the most common remarks, particularly from white men who were trying to pick me up, was how much they like reggae, or how they're really into Bob Marley. They strongly identify dreadlocks on a white woman with Rastafarian appropriation and Bob Marley's image.

(Interestingly, as a side note, there was a 'hippie trail' to India from Australia in the 70's.I've heard white people who spent a long time there express their surprise and bewilderment at seeing dreadlocks appear in white culture when they came back home, as they strongly associated it with the Sadhus in India and had no idea why white people had suddenly started taking it on here.)

Over time though, dreadlocks have become more and more popular amongst white people, and for more and more reasons. But they have always been associated one way or another with defying social norms or choosing alternative lifestyles. Another way white people try to ally themselves with someone wearing locks is somehow work into the conversation that they wore them too at one point, even though they have a 'straight' hairdo now. It's pretty well accepted that almost no white person would have dreads forever (a few months to a few years is the norm), and the circumstances around getting rid of your dreads becomes part of the story.

Just recently I've seen a new phenomena - dreadlocks becoming a fashion statement. This is a remarkable shift because it brings dreadlocks into the mainstream white culture for the first time and normalises them, reducing them to 'fashion' removes the overt associations with Rastafarian culture which white people have linked with locks. As a result, a new thing white people do is to talk about dreadlock care and mention that their son has them - and often say that they would themselves if their hair was up to it. By doing this they're conveying that they understand the stereotype and don't go by it, and that they aren't judging you or making assumptions about you based on your locks. It's another way of allying yourself with a white person who wears them.

I still get a lot of random questions from white people about dread care; the most common one from adults is 'how do you wash them' and from kids it is 'why is your hair like that'. People do ask if they can feel them occasionally, but usually it's very excited teenagers who are thinking about getting dreadlocks themselves; I went through a stage around the time I got mine done of being intensely curious about the various ways of making them and the results, and had to stop myself asking people if I could touch their locks in that stage, so I usually say yes. Curiosity doesn't hurt.

It's not all positive. Overall, slightly less white people would speak to me. The occasional old man would gave me a filthy look. I think some people assume I am too cool for school, that I wouldn't want to associate with them, because there's been a lot of snobby people with locks around who won't talk to people who aren't in their subculture. Others believe the stereotypes and don't want to associate themselves with it.

Dreads are a very personal thing. When you start them you don't quite know what they are going to grow into. Over time you develop a relationship to them and you invest meaning in them. I will say I invested a spiritual meaning into mine; but as a Pagan I'm pretty much making it up as I go along.


Anonymous said...

So how would you respond to the people who argue that white ppl wearing dreads is a form of appropriation? Or was that something you were unaware of when you got them done?

I'm not necessarily criticising you, but I can't help inwardly rolling my eyes when I see dreads on white people. I just wondered how you respond to that type of argument.


cinnamon girl said...

Hi Sarah! Before I could respond to that kind of argument, I have to clear up one thing. Appropriation of what?

That's a genuine question. I've had people assume I'm into Rastafarian culture, because Rastafarian culture has been appropriated by white people so much. I'm not sure if you're a lurker or someone who has come across this blog just now; and you may not be aware that I'm Australian, so not experiencing the cultural context of the USA where maybe people associate dreadlocks more generally with African Americans. So 'weed smoking Rasta' is very much the stereotype that pops into people's heads here when they see dreadlocks. I can't really speak for anyone else who wears dreads but I'm not particularly into reggae music or white Rasta culture.

But assuming that Rastafarian culture is the only context in which dreadlocks are appropriate is yet another erroneous white Aussie assumption.

So if someone came up to me and accused me of appropriating something, I might answer that my ancestors wore dreadlocks, I got my hair locked in the land of my ancestors, and as a Pagan I am simply identifying with my own cultural and spiritual roots. Maybe that would get them thinking more outside the box.

Or I'd just tell them what I laid out in this blog post; that my reason for getting my hair locked was to see how it changed the way people related to me. To be honest it's hard to know how I would respond if someone asked me about cultural appropriation, because it hasn't happened yet.

I have a background in Anthropology though, and the stuff I've thought about cultural appropriation in general could fill a book.

macon d said...

Thanks, this was interesting, and I can see why in your context, the cultural appropriation aspect is harder to pinpoint and address.

btw, don't know if you've seen this parody, but it reflects a lot of the derision many Americans feel for white folks with dreads:


Issa said...

Hi there from another dreaded white woman! It's interesting to me that you've had so many people ask you about dread care, talk to you about your dreads, want to touch them, etc. I get a lot of VERY strange looks, but no one ever speaks to me about my hair in public. I try to smile and seem approachable when people stare, but people just tend to look away and not engage. I love my dreads and would be more than willing to babble on endlessly with anyone about them.

cinnamon girl said...

Thanks Macon, but that video won't stream outside the USA. If you can give me some keywords I'll try and google it from another source.

You might be interested in this blog post, I loved it.

cinnamon girl said...

Hey Issa!

Actually something I didn't think of while I was writing this post was how many random people would spontaneously say "I love your dreads!" I reckon at least once a week - on the bus, in the street, at work, at the pub.... I never expected such a positive reaction.

But those who go further often are hesitant to ask at first, and then blurt it out... it's like they try to hold back but their curiosity gets the better of them.

I do live in a place where it's very common to randomly talk to strangers in general though, and I noticed a slight decrease in random stranger conversations overall. I think dreads are still slightly intimidating, just not nearly as much as they were twenty years ago.

macon d said...

Dang. Try

andy samberg ras trent rastafarian

Thanks for the link to the other post, and it's comments.

"impostafarians," ha! Hmmmmm. . .