Lately I’m really having a bit of a crisis of conscience, re: my locks and the valid reality of cultural appropriation. Bear with me. I’m not passing judgement on anyone, because that’s not my place. This is just something more and more I’m beginning to wrestle with personally, and there’s not an “easy” answer. I lurk around the edges of a lot of social justice circles, but I don’t actually know a lot of dreadlocked peeps in those circles, so that leaves me bouncing around ideas by myself—like usual.
A little background—I’ve had my dreads almost 5 years. I’m predominantly caucasian background. Spent my formative years as a social outcast (ie. liberal, atheist, femininst, queer, introvert) in the Bible Belt before escaping to the West Coast after college. My eventual decision to lock my hair was admittedly more than a little disconnected from any thoughts of emulation or appropriation and more along the lines of personal aesthetic choice and body modification. My decision wasn’t an effort to align myself with any particular group, ideology, or philosophy but (more specifically self-serving) to try to express a sense of separateness, I guess in a similar way that, through tattoos and piercings, I sought to “retake” my body from the baggage of my upbringing and make it wholey MINE.
I don’t know. This is, I realize, still a dreadfully naive justification in the scope of regional, national, and global conflicts.
Now living in Berlin, the racial dynamic, and thus implications of cultural appropriation, are less immediate. I live in a progressive alternative community in which locks (as well as other body mods and eccentricities) are not unusual, albeit by and large they’re mostly caucasian. Locked hair is a symbol of left-wingers, anarchists, punks, vegans, and progressive agendas here, not just hippies or Rasta-admirers. But there’s unfortunately precious little conversation about appropriation. And I don’t really know where to start. I’m admittedly more comfortable joining conversations than starting them.
Meanwhile, news of late back home in the US is filled with talk about race relations, inequality, Black Lives Matter, etc. and my social media feeds are filled with social justice think-pieces detailing how we “white people” can better serve as progressive allies, etc. And I can’t help reading peripheral think-pieces about cultural appropriation, pieces which detail in compelling ways why “white people” shouldn’t lock their hair. And in reading, I feel complicit. Because I am, in my privileged way, however I try to spin my reasoning.
And thus here I am, almost 5 years with my locks. I’m loathe to part with them. I hesitate to call them part of my identity … but after 5 years, there’s definitely a relationship. I got them shortly after meeting my partner—he hardly remembers a “me” without locks. I got married with these locks. There are threads woven into different locks marking events like our marriage, our move across the world, the death of my grandfather, etc. There’s a very personal relationship here.
At the same time, I feel guilt, because my hair also represents, to some (and a valid some), a broader cultural ugliness and insensitivity. That’s a pretty hefty ick-factor.
And more personally, the social “oppression” I experienced living in the South makes me keen to avoid being part of the masses when it comes to contributing to a feeling of oppression endured by others. I had naively believed for a long while that being an eccentric “fringe” character in my own community meant that I wasn’t contributing to this sense of oppression … but now I can’t stop thinking about it.
So—how to balance those privileged elements of preference/self-expression and the heavier implications of continued oppression? How to balance aesthetic appreciation and implied appropriation?
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Update: And the really interesting bit, I think I failed to articulate, is how the nature of the conversation changes depending on where you’re at. The cultural appropriation debate is less of a thing here in Germany because there are (obviously) different cultural dynamics at work. Thus attempting to discuss this issue here would need to appreciate differences in cultural relations/interpretations as opposed to trying to adopt directly arguments from the American debate.
Depending on whether I’m standing in Berlin or in Seattle, WA or in Baton Rouge, LA, my wearing locks implies different things about privilege and respect in our society (whether personally accurate or no) – just as I myself can expect to receive different levels of acceptance/criticism.
It’s really fascinating stuff we should be talking about.