Dreadlocks and Cultural Appropriation

Angela Kabiru responded strongly to Lotte’s blog on cultural borrowing last month so today we thought we’d let her have her own stay about dreadlocks as cultural appropriation. We keep an archive of news stories relevant to our project and the very first thing we archived was a story about a Kenyan boy who’d been asked by his school to cut off his dreadlocks, this story was reported in Jamaica as well as Kenya.  This debate seems set to run and run in Kenya and elsewhere.

Angela is a researcher at National Museums Kenya, she has a particular interest in landscape archaeology, prehistoric beads and cultural tourism.  She writes:

There is a short video clip posted on YouTube that shows a black woman attacking a white man because he has dreadlocks. The woman claims that he should not wear his hair this way because ‘it is her culture’. Which makes me wonder, who decides what parts of a particular culture one should borrow? And who owns culture?

We do not know where this woman comes from but it would be interesting to know why she claims that as her culture. Maybe Jamaica where they claim ‘ownership’ of dreadlocks, but Ethiopia could also have a claim to the Rastafari movement. Many Africans traditionally had hair like this.

Maasai ilmuran, for example grow their hair long and twist it into long braids for the period they are warriors. Even the Turkana have short twists. Men and women in many other communities braid and twist their hair. During the fight for freedom, the Mau Mau wore their hair like this, and it was assumed that everyone with locks was Mau Mau. Fast forward 2106; many modern Kenyan women are now growing dreadlocks (including myself). I do not know why; there seems to be some kind of revolution. It is easy to keep it natural and easy to care for.

On the other hand, many African women straighten their hair and wear wigs that look like European hair. Should Europeans complain that we are doing our hair their way? Are we now going to stop importing wigs because it is not part of our culture? We might, because we don’t like wigs, not because white people say that black people cannot wear wigs. Do we assign culture according to colour? Who’s to say the white man is not Jamaican? Would it be alright if a Tanzanian sports dreadlocks? Does one belong to a particular culture because of ancestry or country of origin?

We are taught that culture is not static; that is why there are terms such as acculturation and assimilation; one does not simply become a product of a particular culture without enculturation. And one can choose to adopt aspects of another culture for whatever reason.

Let us be practical. We cannot expect that people should not borrow when there is so much mixing of ‘cultures’. As long as we respect others, understand and appreciate other people’s way of life, I don’t see why this should be a problem. Universities should be open-minded about this; unfortunately all these interesting events are happening in our higher institutions of learning which makes me wonder.

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