Locs and Chains: Nothing to ‘Dread’ About Locs Except Discrimination if You’re Black

From the controversy over Marc Jacobs’ Fashion Week show to the federal court supporting a locs ban in the workplace, the natural hairstyle is being appropriated by whites while being condemned when worn by blacks.

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Do a Google image search for “dreadlocks” and the entire first row of images is of white people—mostly women, the one exception being an image of Johnny Depp in faux dreadlocks as Capt. Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

While not surprising, it seemed very telling that Googling a hairstyle primarily associated with people of African descent would result in smiling white women as the representation.

However, Google “locs” and you will get pages and pages of gorgeous melanin. I would like to think that this points toward a conscious effort in the black community to stop using a term that I feel is very anti-black to describe a hairstyle that has such a positive and rich origin in black culture.

“Dread” means to “anticipate with great apprehension or fear”; and with every “I felt threatened” excuse used by cops who have ended the life of a person of color, this is a very dangerous adjective to have associated with us. But there are those who can keep the “dread” in dreadlocks without the negative comments or press, mainly culture vultures like Justin Bieber and Kylie Jenner. Joining their ilk recently was designer Marc Jacobs during New York Fashion Week, which sent us yet another loud reminder that mainstream media isn’t done picking the aspects of black culture that they love and giving no acknowledgment of the origins.

Jacobs’ recent rave-themed show featured models walking down the runway wearing multicolored faux locs piled on top of their heads. To be fair, he did include a few models of color, but that didn’t stop many from questioning why the majority of his models were white—and why he didn’t hire one model with natural, real locs.

And it definitely didn’t stop Twitter from the lightning-speed clapbacks, calling out the drastic difference in how these locs were seen on white vs. black women. How locs are deemed unprofessional or unclean on people of color, but white models in faux locs are boho and chic. Jacobs confirmed that the look was inspired by Lana Wachowski, a director who starred in a recent ad campaign for the designer. The label’s lead hairstylist also commented to Harper’s Bazaar that “rave culture, club culture, acid house, Boy George and Marilyn” were also inspirations for the dreadlock look.

After a very tone-deaf response to the criticism and cries of appropriation—in which Jacobs questioned whether it’s also appropriation when women of color straighten their hair—he finally apologized for being insensitive and gave a stock response: that he is learning and appreciates the conversation around the topic.

A few days after this uproar, the news was ablaze with another loc-related scandal. A federal appeals court sided with an Alabama company that had revoked a job offer when an applicant refused to cut her locs before accepting the job. The company had a long-standing “race-neutral grooming policy,” requesting that employees wear their hair in business-appropriate styles, concluding that dreadlocks did not fit inside these restrictions.

The irony of white models being praised for faux dreadlocks in the same week that black people were losing opportunities for natural locs was lost on no one. That is the thing about appropriation: Those doing the taking are reaping the benefits often never seen by those who are part of the culture in which the style originated.

The painful history of negative public opinion toward recognizably black hair is nothing new. From pencil tests during apartheid to chemical relaxers to the banning of certain styles in schools, it’s no secret that black hair is an issue to many. The message that black hair (on black people) is unkempt, unprofessional and undesirable is woven into most of the public messages that we absorb.

This past summer, notable educator Steve Perry tweeted about witnessing 200 boys cutting their locs, braids and ’fros, and the connection of their aesthetic to success. This was a smack-in-the-face reminder that it isn’t just white culture policing our appearance. There are many pro-black, culturally aware people of color who agree that how our hair grows out of our heads may not be appropriate for all arenas—especially when worn in styles that accentuate the unique qualities of black hair.

While I understand the delicate nuances of code-switching, this intracultural “bootstrapping” suggests to our children that success will come only with assimilation; that the accomplishment gaps exist because we don’t change ourselves to conform. One of my favorite natural-hair gurus, Taren Guy, has recently decided to start free-form-locking her iconic ’fro. She has been honest that not all the responses have been positive, and even shared that she lost a hosting appearance for a company that decided her hair did not fit their image.

These are brands that publicly support black natural hair. They sponsor our hair crushes and appear to empower them to embrace the most authentic version of themselves. Yet they decide that locs are not a part of this authenticity; curls are acceptable, but allowing your hair to wrap and form around its natural texture is suddenly off-brand.

From the strong young girls protesting anti-black hair codes at schools in South Africa to outlets praising white women for cornrows and Bantu knots, there are still many blatant examples of black hair on black people being undesired. Unfortunately, to mainstream culture, while some natural hairstyles have become more acceptable, locs still scream rebellion.