I realize that dreadlocks are sometimes done for religious purposes, and that they have serious meaning in several different cultures. And I suppose that it IS cultural appropriation for a white, american girl to wear them. However…what is it that is actually wrong with this? I don’t understand, so this is a sincere question. Isn’t it sort of…racist to say that only THIS culture can appropriately wear their hair this way? Your blog has really made me consider this and think. What is your opinion?
Fuck Yeah Cultural Appropriation answered:
So here’s one way to approach it, which we’ll call the semiotics of dreadlocks. ‘Semiotics’ is the study of signs and their meanings, like chemistry is the study of chemicals and stuff.
So a long time ago, Papa Saussure, ‘father of modern linguistics’ (white man, obvi) said that a ‘sign’is composed of a ‘signifier’ (the thing you use to say something, like a word or an icon or whatever) and a ‘signified’ (The thing you’re trying to say, like the idea of stopping) that in fact, the ‘meaning’ of a sign doesn’t live in the signifier itself - ‘stop’ - and neither does it live in the signified itself - the idea ‘stop right here or shit’s going down’. A reals ‘sign’ sort of just chills in the relationship between the two. that is, a stop sign isn’t a sign if no one knows that it’s trying to ‘signify’ the idea ‘stop, guy!’ If you can’t read a sign, it might as well be random scribbles in the sand (things like that are called ‘asemic,’ meaning, ‘meaningless.’ Whoah). Also, just like you can’t think of signifiers just chilling by themselves, neither can you think of signifieds just relaxing, because to convey meaning, you need language. You can’t just have ideas, you have ideas through language. Ok?
SO, ON TO DREADLOCKS. ‘Dreadlocks’ are really just a complex sign, in this case, made of hair. But just like a stop sign, dreadlocks aren’t just hair, they’re also the meaning of hair. For example, a dread rastawoman doesn’t just have ‘messy’ or ‘cool’ hair. She has a righteous sign of her dedication to Jah Rastafari. Her dreadlocks are not complete without the meaning they carry. Now, meaning is imbued with history - think of the confederate flag - and that is one of the points Fuck Yeah Cultural Appropriation is trying to make: you can’t just take a cultural sign and act as if it has no history, as if a headdress or dreadlocks just exist ‘in itself.’ Because if you do, you’re doing a very real kind of violence, you’re trying to break a sign, you’re trying to break meaning. And these meanings can be anything from religious devotion, to family links, to lineage, to honour, mourning, and so on. Culture lives in the signs, so when someone tries to deny the meaning of signs, they’re trying to kill that sign and so try to kill a little bit of culture. If you try and appropriate signs, you’re trying to leave a culture of pure signifieds, and no signifiers. How is a culture going to signify if you try and take all its signifiers? And also, how do you expect to signify, if you have all the signifiers, but no signifides?
Now, of course, signs don’t just have one meaning, they mean different things in different contexts. For example, the inverted christian cross is often understood to be satanic. But in a scholastic catholic context, the inverted cross is the sign of St. Peter, and signifies humility even in the face of death. Or the swastika, which is a sacred symbol for tons of folks around the world,but which got made a shitshow out of by the fucking Nazis.
So what we’re saying isn’t that there’s only one way to wear hair, or that only some ‘races’ can use certain symbols. What we’re arguing is for an understanding of cultural signs as real heavy shit, and for a way of being that tries to read signs in their context, in their full signification, even the sad, uncomfortable parts, the genocidal parts, the slavery parts, the trail of tears parts, and all the parts that make you rethink not only your hairstyle, but also your place in history and your accountability to others.
[This was an ask submitted to Fuck Yeah Cultural Appropriation and their answer was so awesome I made it rebloggable. Fuck Yeah Cultural Appropriation answered this in ALL CAPS, something they explain here, but I retyped it in standard capitalisation because large blocks of ALL CAPS are nearly impossible for me to read as a dyspraxic and dyslexic person.]
I am still not “back” but I logged in to peer at some new messages and followers and this was what greeted me on my dash and it is just such an epic pile of FUCK YES, THIS that I had to reblog. Peace.
And also. When a white or otherwise privileges person uses a signifier of a historically oppressed group, they are using that to signal something. That something is usually along the lines of ‘street cred’ or ‘edginess’. Look how cool I am! I am tough/hip/whatever.
But while that, say, white person with dreadlocks, may get some negative reactions to it, they do not have the same oppressions that the original group has to deal with. A white man with dreadlocks may be looked at askance, he may be judged as a ‘smelly hippy’ (because dreadlocks on a white person have come to have their own, different, signifieds, which is problematic in and of itself).
But mostly people will either not care or think he is ‘cool’. They will almost certainly not refuse to serve him in their store or sit next to him at a bar. And either way, he can always remove the signifier and go back to his privilege. This is even more pronounced with something like a headdress which you can take off at any time, and immediately change the way people perceive you.
You are gaining something from that signifier, and that gain is bought with other people’s histories.