Justin Bieber has been wearing his hair in dreads for about a week now. In that week, there have been headlines, think pieces, backlash and outrage over Bieber’s hair, calling him out for cultural appropriation. A piece in JET calls the dreads “an insult to [his] black fans.”
I don’t think I’m insulted by Bieber's hair necessarily but I am embarrassed for him. One, he looks terrible and two, since Bieber is someone who has benefitted from black culture A LOT, this look is especially tone deaf. While the history of dreadlocks can be traced to a multitude of different cultures, they mostly date back to Ancient Egypt, Kenya and Ethopia where the Rastafarian movement was born. A great article about Bieber’s new ‘do in The Guardian refers to dreads as “a hairstyle that represents a reclamation of black identity.” Dreadlocks were a symbol of black pride and empowerment in the 70s and today, they are still mainly associated with Bob Marley and black culture. The history is important here.
If the comments of any of the articles I’ve read recently are any indication, most people want to roll their eyes when they read the words “cultural appropriation.” The term has become a boring buzzword that people scroll past while muttering about how we’re all too politically correct. Stop scrolling. Appropriation is about exploitation. It’s about a dominant group taking from the culture of marginalized groups without understanding the history or significance of the culture they are taking from.
Do you think Bieber understands the history of dreadlocks? When he was asked about his new look, Bieber said:
“It’s just my hair.” This is the same guy who came to Kylie Jenner’s defense when she was accused of appropriation for wearing cornrows with the same lack of awareness.
The counter argument when it comes to hair and appropriation is usually, “well, what about black girls who have weaves or dye their hair blonde? Why isn’t anyone accusing Beyonce of cultural appropriation?” Here’s why: black women still get called out for being ‘unprofessional’ for wearing their hair in braids. When Zendaya wears dreads, she’s written off as a weed-smoking deviant. You cannot appropriate the dominant culture you are trying to fit into.
The “it’s just hair” argument also doesn’t sit well with me because I grew up as a little girl with black hair in a predominately white suburb. It was never “just hair.” My hair was in braids for all of elementary and high school. I endured lots of unsolicited touching, mocking and general feelings of isolation because of my hair. So, my reaction to white celebs with braids or typically ‘black hairstyles’ is complicated. On the one hand, if Gigi Hadid or whichever white celebrity makes cornrows cool for every girl, that might mean my niece gets to go to school and sport the same hairstyle as her blonde classmate and maybe she won’t feel as alone or out-of-place as I did. On the other, my braids also made me feel special and unique. They gave me a sense of identity and a “black girl magic” that was all my own. So sometimes, my gut reaction when I see these celebs is NO, YOU DON’T GET ALL THE THINGS.
To me, it boils down to credit. This trend of calling cornrows “boxer braids” and attributing the style to a certain non-black family instead of giving props where props are due is the main problem. I’m OK with white girls wearing their hair in braids if the inspiration photos in magazines hailing this look as a “NEW SPRING TREND” are of black girls. I’m OK with Bieber rocking dreads as long as in six months, magazines don’t act like he invented them. Wilbert L Cooper at Vice puts it perfectly when he writes “any time white folks do something that people of colour have been doing forever, they manage to take all the damn credit.” He cites Elvis, Miley’s twerking and Iggy Azalea’s short-lived ‘Queen of Hip-Hop’ title as examples.
I don’t think any of these artists or even Justin Bieber are intentionally being culturally insensitive but when it’s comes to hair, it’s not so simple. I know my relationship with my hair is complex and I think it’s similar for a lot of black women. I’ve worn my hair long and straight-ish in a weave for almost a decade. I’m not trying to be white but on some level, maybe I am conforming to a white standard of beauty. I’m pretty sure I was just trying to be Tyra Banks when I first got my weave but who was Tyra trying to be? What box was she trying to fit into?
I just hope as “natural” black hairstyles move into dominant culture and are celebrated as cool and beautiful, as they should be, credit is given where credit is due.
I would love to know your thoughts on this topic. It’s big, confusing and polarizing but it’s a fascinating conversation. Let’s yell about it. Let’s fight. Bring it. Tweet me @kathleennb.