Why locked hair is not cultural appropriation

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).

Identify restriction
Eating Chinese food, wearing moccasins made by a First Nations artist, and getting cornrows from a black hair salon are all not appropriation. None of those things are particularly marked as sacred, and they are not intended by their originating cultures to have ‘restricted’ use.
Here is where we diverge from some agendas made popular by social justice blogs. The key is “restricted.” This is why eating Chinese food, wearing moccasins made by a First Nations artist, and getting cornrows from a black hair salon are all not appropriation. None of those things are particularly marked as sacred, and they are not intended by their originating cultures to have “restricted” use.

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.

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.
Another thing that muddies the water is that a cultural practice may be open to everyone, but just some aspects of it are restricted to outsiders. Cultural examples of this dynamic include pow wow participation (but veterans dances are for veterans only) and Catholic mass (but communion is restricted to those who are baptized). A general example would be that anyone is welcome in a shopping mall, but only certain people can enter the janitorial closet. But what about aesthetic items?

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
Like tattooing, locked hair has independently appeared in cultures on all six inhabited continents across millennia.
Locked hair is a result of not brushing your hair. Every hair type can lock if left unbrushed. Like tattooing, locked hair has independently appeared in cultures on all six inhabited continents across millennia. Don’t believe me?

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.

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.’
Some of the words above used to describe locked hair have restricted implications. “Dreadlocks” are called such because Rastas dread/”fear” the Abrahamic God called Jah — implying spiritual actions/beliefs. “Jata” can be seen on the Jat people in India, who — by one account — were birthed from Shiva’s locks; in India, people wear jata today to display their devotion to Shiva.

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.”

In conclusion

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.

White people can belong to many cultures that have traditionally had locks. And 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.
Are people with locks discriminated against? Yes, but this goes for anyone who has them, not just one group. Locks don’t signify a culture, so institutions that disallow locked hair aren’t necessarily targeting a specific cultural group. Therefore, the logic is weak when saying “white people shouldn’t have them because black people are discriminated for having them.” The simple truth is that black people are accepted in institutions with their locks far, far, far more often than nonblack people are, because manicured locs on black people are often mistaken for neat braids or twists. An institution that allows a black person with locks will not always allow a nonblack person with locks. However, an institution that allows a nonblack person with locks will always allow a black person with locks. So keep that in mind next time you hear the myth that white people with locks are unfairly accepted more readily than black people with locs.

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.

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