Yes, dreadlocks are often seen as cultural appropriation when worn by Caucasian people due to their deep connection to African culture.
Extensive scholarly research[1,2,3,4] demonstrates how, in the American context, dreadlocks have been worn as a symbol of black resistance, and the wearing of dreadlocks has been punished accordingly by the white majority against the black majority – such as in the case of the 11th Circuit’s ban on dreadlocks, which was interpreted by many as oppression of expression of cultural identity.
Thus, when worn by white people as a trendy hairstyle, there is a perception that white colonizers are being blase about adopting a hairstyle that is a culturally distinct expression of resistance.
Whether you believe they’re cultural appropriation or not, enough people consider them to be cultural appropriation that it’s worth thinking twice before getting this hairstyle.
So, much of society considers white people wearing them to be participating in cultural appropriation these days.
However, there are many people who still think that dreadlocks may not be considered cultural appropriation. We will delve into both opinions within this article.
What Are Dreadlocks?
Dreadlocks are rope-like strands of hair which have been created by either matting or braiding. Some popular ways to achieve this hairstyle are by rolling, crocheting, twist-and-ripping, and backcombing.
The Origin of Dreadlocks
The style of dreadlocks often seen today originally came from the African continent, namely Senegal. It was in Senegal where followers of the Mouride movement would grow locks which would then be dyed with a clay earth pigment called red ochre.
However, there is also evidence of dreadlocks in other communities such as ancient Egypt, Germanic tribes, Pacific Islanders, the Vikings, early Christians, the New Guineans, Aboriginal Australians, the Somali, the Maasai, the Galla and the Ashtani and Fulani tribes of Africa.
It is partly due to the fact dreadlocks have been found in many ancient cultures that many believe that it isn’t cultural appropriation to wear dreadlocks. Most societies have at some point utilized the hairstyle!
In Jamaica, Rastafarians wore locks that were inspired by the Nazarites – God-serving Israelites – of the Bible. It is the people of the island of Jamaica that actually popularized dreadlocks in Western society and gave it its name.
Since then, dreadlocks have become an expression of ethnic pride and opposition to certain social-political structures that have supported Caucasian person at the expense of Black people.
Related Article: Are Dutch Braids Cultural Appropriation?
Cultural Appropriation vs Cultural Appreciation
There is a distinction between the terms “cultural appropriation” and “cultural appreciation”:
- Cultural Appropriation: This is where you do not respect or honor the culture of which something originates from
- Cultural appreciation: This is where you understand the history and are willing to learn.
However, there are many arguments as to whether or not dreadlocks are a form of cultural appropriation rather than appreciation.
Dreadlocks As Cultural Appreciation
It is debated over whether or not dreadlocks can ever be worn by a white person. Some say that so long as they understand and respect the culture and customs of which dreadlocks stem from, they should be able to wear them.
However, others believe that to wear dreadlocks as a Caucasian is to ignore centuries of prejudice and suffering that black dreadlocks-wearers have faced:
- Dreadlocks have been worn as symbols of black defiance against white colonial culture that tried to prevent them from wearing them for decades.
- Dreadlocks became ‘trendy’ among hippies, and they wore them without acknowledging the symbology of the hairstyle to black people and the fact that the hairstyle in a modern American context represents racial resistance.
Especially in places such as modern-day America, wearing dreadlocks has been a form of defiance against segregation and persecution.
As a result, wearing dreadlocks as a white person is today often interpreted as a symbol of ignorance and disrespect for the struggles of black people who have been trying to maintain their distinct culture, which has simultaneously been oppressed by white culture for centuries.
Related Article: Are Box Braids Cultural Appropriation?
The Trend of Dreadlocks
Dreadlocks have over the decades been somewhat of a trend amongst white people, namely “hippies”.
Commonly, this hairstyle is worn without any acknowledgment of the fact that today’s version of dreadlocks are deeply embedded in African and African-American countercultures.
Many celebrities have briefly adopted this hairstyle, such as Justin Beber, who experienced backlash.
Similar to other hairstyles such as box braids, dreadlocks have been used by white people as something which is fashionable, rather than a deeply historical and cultural hairstyle, which many black people believe them to be.
However, many people believe that dreadlocks can be worn as a form of cultural appreciation rather than appropriation. This is very much a subjective topic.
Even with this, many will still believe that wearing dreadlocks as a white person is cultural appropriation –so expect backlash!
Related Article: 10 Examples Of Mexican Cultural Appropriation
In general, wearing dreadlocks as a white person will attract accusations of cultural appropriation, whether you agree with it or not. So, expect some backlash from segments of the community.
Whilst some may argue differently, it is a well-known fact that in a modern American context, dreadlocks represent something: they are a sign of pride and defiance against white oppression.
Thus, it’s seen that for a white person to wear them is a sign of disrespect and a lack of understanding. If you still want to wear them, know that many people will feel as though you are disrespecting a minority culture.
 Kuumba, M. & Ajanaku, F. (1998). Dreadlocks: The Hair Aesthetics of Cultural Resistance and Collective Identity Formation. Mobilization: An International Quarterly. 3(2): 227–243. doi; https://doi.org/10.17813/maiq.3.2.nn180v12hu74j318
 Mutukwa, T. (2019). Dreadlocks as a symbol of resistance. Feminist Africa. 21(1): 78 – 97. https://feministafrica.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/feminist_africa_21.pdf#page=78
 Frank, J. (2017). The Eleventh Circuit Dreadlocks Ban and the Implications of Race Discrimination in the Workplace. Barry L. Rev., 23, 27.
 Wilkinson, A. (2016). No Dreadlocks Allowed. The Atlantic.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.