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Dreadlocks: Does Anyone Really Care?

March 23, 2018

Dreadlocks! Who would have thought hair could be a controversial topic. In the last couple of years, they have gained a certain notoriety for apparently falling under the category “cultural appropriation”. I'm here to tell you why that isn't the case.


On the internet, you can be called out for anything –and it's become common for people to call out white people (or people of color who aren't black of African ancestry)– for wearing what they deem as a black hairstyle. They go so far as to denigrate and shame people who do have them, by calling them “Grinch fingers”. I think we need to take a step back and look at our history as the human race.


The difference is looking at plaits or dreadlocks through an anthropological view rather than simply a sociological one. Trans cultural diffusion is the spread of cultural items —such as ideas, styles, religions, technologies, languages, et cetera— between individuals, whether within a single culture or from one culture to another. 


At worst it could be described as “forced diffusion” (not cultural appropriation, as some have thought), which happens when one culture subjugates another culture and forces its own customs on the conquered people. For example, the enslavement of African people by the British and Americans up until 1865. 


Cultural appropriation simply isn't the correct terminology or mindset to use with dreadlocks. Trans cultural diffusion happens, whether it's desire or not. As humanity progressed and spread out from its origins, it adapted along with each step it took. 


That is not to say, however, that dreadlocks fully fits into this category. Much like Joseph Campbells Hero With a Thousand Faces. In his work he discovered that there was indeed a mono-myth – the same story told in all cultures around the world, despite having no contact with each other. As a species, humanity has an ingrained connection. Similarly, hairstyles have adapted to cultural surroundings and inventions.


The comb itself is only dated 3000 BCE, at the end of the Neolithic period. Unfortunately, the timeline prior to this period is called prehistory for a reason: we have no written records. We have archaeological digs and carbon dating to help us learn more, but it's just not the same. This is why we know so much more about what people in France during the 1500's wore versus what people in 3000 BCE Malta wore. We have clues, like this image depicting a Maltese woman with the top of her head shaved, and the bottom in plaits or dreadlocks. 


Prior to the invention of the comb, we have to imagine that our ancestors did whatever they could to maintain their hair. Frequently in art we see completely bare heads, and more often than not, we see multiple or single plaits or dreadlocks in Mesopotamian art.


When we come to ancient India, we discover that one of the most venerated gods in Hinduism, Shiva, is portrayed with dreadlocks. Some argue that this is the first instance of dreads appearing in prehistoric art. 

Here is a helpful video to show the spread of human migration, since its beginning in the African continent:

If you want to be technical, Africa is the beginning of dreadlocks, but only because it's everyone's beginning. We all evolved from African ancestors over millions of years and then migrated over thousands of years to the rest of the world. As we migrated, we took with us our hairstyles and our cultures. In many cultures, as the timeline continues, dreadlocks fell out of fashion – we stopped seeing them as often in art in as many places as we originally saw them. Sometimes, instances of dreadlocks would show up in circumstances like Viking culture, where (while not popular), one Viking king was said to have declared he wouldn't brush his hair until he conquered England. Whether or not he separated it into many locks, or kept it as one plait is unknown.


Over and over you will see (on Wikipedia and other websites) where they will tell you that dreadlocks were “first depicted”, or “first seen”, and again – this is true, because prior to these depictions, we didn't have a written history, as I mentioned before. 


The simple fact is that hair mattes. It just does. There's no way to avoid this, which is why we need brushes in modern times to keep hair neat and tidy and not locked. Dreads and plaits are the natural formation in our hair, black or white or brown. It doesn't matter.


Several things in history have increased the popularity of dreads today, from the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica, popular culture, hippies in the 1960's and 1970's, and then transforming into goth culture in the 80's, 90's and present. 


A lot of people want dreadlocks and find them attractive on themselves and on other people. Let people enjoy things. In the end, it's a hairstyle, not an invention – hairstyles change and adapt through history and nobody “owns” a hairstyle. If you want to get dreadlocks, go ahead and get them. There are those fighting to keep them portrayed positively in media, on the heads of people of any denomination or ancestry. Let's work together and make sure people don't get fired or lose opportunities because of their hairstyle choices. 


Today, dreadlocks are popular in many cultures and subcultures around the world. While they have remained popular in African communities (although not all), it is also popular in the goth subculture (and if you want to get even more technical, cyber goths have a deep love for them). And you know what? It's okay. I promise.

Jess Armstrong lives in the cornfields of Southern Ontario, Canada where she's a fulltime procrastinator and loud mouth. She's also a giant geek, gamer girl, horror movie fanatic and player (and often DM) of Dungeons and Dragons.  You can follow her on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook.

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