Define cultural appropriation
Cultural appropriation is a hegemonic social dynamic wherein members of a dominant culture (which is not necessarily defined by race) exploit sacred or otherwise restricted elements of the cultures they dominate for fashion or otherwise “culturally inappropriate” gain — e.g., profit, cool points. Is cultural appropriation real? In academic studies: yes. But there is a difference between cultural exchange (mutual) and cultural appropriation (exploitative).
What’s restricted use? Well, in the United States, our national culture makes it clear that one cannot wear a Medal of Honor unless they have earned it. This means that even within the culture, there are people that cannot wear/own that thing — even replicas. The same goes for warbonnets for members of the Cheyenne nation and other Plains indigenous groups. I wouldn’t build a san phra phum (“spirit house” for making offerings) outside of my house for decoration, because that’s not my faith system, and it’s a little rude to the people who actually hold those things sacred (though they are very beautiful!).
Some elements of culture are sacred, and others are secular. Here’s an article with more info about the concept of restricted use as it relates to cultural appropriation.
Practical, complex examples
The examples I provided above were obvious no-nos. But as you go on, you’ll realize that not everything is cut and dried, because the ideals of individuals in any culture are never entirely homogenous. For instance, there are some parts of some cultures that some members think are sacred, while other members of that same culture think they are not sacred. An example of this is the bindi from India. These things are difficult to navigate, so my best advice to you is be authentic, do research, ask questions, be open, and also be critical of your intentions.
Let’s use tattooing as our example. To Maori peoples, face tattoos (called ta-moko) are very sacred. In order to design and obtain moko, one must know their genealogy (whakapapa) and also obtain consent from others who share one’s whakapapa. According to Patrick Ta Koko, “if it lacked a community effort or that process, then it simply is not moko.”
Say you want a face tattoo. Are face tattoos “owned” by any one cultural group? Nope! Tattooed faces have appeared independently (without cultural contact) in many cultures across millennia on the six inhabited continents. So is it “appropriative” to permanently mark your face? Absolutely not. But if you were to copy ta-moko, it, indeed, would be highly disrespectful to a restricted and sacred art exclusively belonging to a culture that is dying out — in part to historical violence and forced cultural conversion.
But if you’re super into the Maori aesthetic, then there are options for you to respectfully get tattooed with the method, not the community process. Ta Koko writes, “What if I was wanting just a Maori design instead of a moko? There is such a concept known as kirituhi. Kirituhi translates literally to mean, ‘drawn skin.’ As opposed to moko, which requires a process of consents, genealogy and historical information, kirituhi is merely a design with a Maori flavour that can be applied anywhere, for any reason and on anyone. This is not to say that kirituhi is void of meaning … But based upon the definition of moko, kirituhi is void of consents, genealogy and historical meaning.”
Therefore: Face tattoos are not appropriative. To Maori, you can appropriate their tattoos. However, not all Maori facial tattooing is restricted. Moko are restricted, but kirituhi are not. Though they look almost the same, one is culturally restricted because of background spirituality, and the other one is more secular and is not.
There’s nuance and gray area. Remember that.
Locks are shared by everyone
According to my personal research, the following groups all have text, photos, or artifacts discussing the phenomenon of locked hair. This, of course, is not a comprehensive list, but it easily shows how locked hair is a global phenomenon. Animals can also have uniform locks sometimes; for dogs, the style is called “cording.” In alpacas, they are called “pencils.” Poitou donkeys have locks called “cadenettes.”
- Tibetan Buddhists (called “ralpa changlocan,” part of tantric Vajrayana practice, seen on ngakpas)
- Drokpa Nomads (located in Tibetan Plateau and Himalaya)
- Mongolians (shamanic practice)
- Indians (called jata, seen on sadhu and sadhvi; also seen on fakirs)
- Israeli Nazarite (as per the Nazarite Vow in the Bible)
- Egyptian (Tutankamun was discovered to have had them upon his exhuming; many wigs show locked hair)
- Mbalantu (called eembuvi)
- Hamar (called goscha)
- Bishari (name unknown)
- Ethiopian Tsemays
- Angolan Mwilas
- Himba (called ozondjise)
- Jamaican Rastas (called dreadlocks)
- Kwaaymii (Wa Amaay Kwakas aka Paints the Sky Yellow, aka Yellow Sky had them)
- Aztec (described in the Durán Codex, the Codex Tudela and the Codex Mendoza)
- Contemporary diasporic Africans (called locs in the U.S. after the 1990s)
- Cree (Chief Pitikwahanapiwiyin/Poundmaker/“Wolf Thin Legs”, Chief Little Bear, Baby Jack, and He Who Shows His Blood had them; exact name for it unknown)
- Mojave (Chief Inétabe had them; they were called hair rolls)
- Pima-Maricopa (Chief Tashquinth “Sun Count”)
- Tlingit (a shaman named Tek’ic was photographed with them)
- Chilean Pre-Inca Waris (had no writing system, so we don’t know what they were historically called — though mummies survive)
- Gaels (called glibbes)
- Polish (called kołtun)
- Sicilian (Gna Vanna’s locks were essential to her witchcraft)
- English (Shakespeare called the early stages of freeform knotting fairylocks)
- Papua natives
- Fiji natives
- Aboriginal Australians, namely the Nyamal (name unknown)
- Maori (loose freeform locks called “rino makawe”)
- Rarotongas of the Cook Islands
- Ni-Vanuatu of Tanna Island
Are locks restricted?
Look above. That’s a lot of cultures — and that list doesn’t even include all of them. They all had different reasons for having locks. Some of them were formed by neglect. Some are a symbol of priesthood. Some are a symbol of feminine culture. Some are a symbol of asceticism. Some are for pure aesthetics. Can you “appropriate” all of that at once? No. The fact of the matter is that, unlike warbonnets and spirit houses, locked hair has a very wide variety of meanings that don’t globally communicate a specific cultural message.
So it’s probably misleading to call my hair “dreadlocks” if I don’t honor Jah. And it’s probably misleading to call my hair “jata” if I don’t honor Shiva. Piggybacking on those traditions would kinda be like faking my own Maori design and calling it moko. As such, I avoid all disrespect and misrepresentation by calling people’s hair “locks,” a culturally neutral term that — like kirituhi — has no restricted implications. (I also call my hair “locs” because it is associated with a group I belong to: diasporic Africans. Type “locs” into Google and see that everyone is black.)
Therefore, having locked hair is not bound by culture. But the name you call the locked hair might be. If you’re unsure of someone’s cultural background or reasons for locking, consider playing it safe and call them “locks.”
Cultural appropriation hinges on culture and power. Locked hair is spread across the world, and therefore does not inherently signify a power dynamic, specific culture, particular race, or set of practices.
Lastly: We live in plural societies. Phenotypical races do not indicate monoliths of ethnicity or culture. People immigrate, convert to religions, marry into cultures … you cannot tell anyone’s culture by their race. So “cultural appropriation” isn’t about witch hunting white people who wear locks, prayer beads, etc. Nonblack people can belong to many cultures that have traditionally had locks. Black people can belong to many cultures who have not traditionally had locks. But even if someone doesn’t belong to traditional cultures with locks, there are many modern subcultures that have unique, specific styles of locks as well — styles that don’t closely resemble any traditional practice anywhere on earth.
Beyond that, if we set aside the culture and politics, locks are a part of human physiology. It’s tangled hair. So to say that it’s owned by anyone, at the end of the day, is just an attempt to put red tape around something that’s always been done by the hands of nature herself.