In last week's Sexual Politics column about how a guy choking his girlfriend with his dreadlocks shouldn't be a punchline, I made this flippant joke: "It's tempting to laugh at this news because, of course, dreadlocks are disgusting and everyone who decides to grow dreadlocks should be publicly mocked."
This sparked a couple thoughtful responses from readers about the racial components of dismissing dreadlocks. From reader Alex:
This stereotype is often funny and true, but at it's core has an ugly racial distinction: it is ok for people of one "race" to have a haircut that you consider disgusting on another "race".
I fundamentally agree that most dreads on white people look terrible. You need really curly hair to pull off nice dreads, but some of us of non-African descent do actually have this.
Dreadlocks are a historical and current way of maintaining and styling hair for people of color (POC), and they were doing it for centuries before us dirty Europeans even started using soap or shampoo on ours. POC, especially women, have been discriminated against in social and professional circles for having dreadlocks for decades. Then there are the white people who dread their hair—this is cultural appropriation to the max. Who dreads their hair aside from POC? Basically, white people who think it’s “natural” and “earthy” and every other hegemonic, ignorant, and privileged adjective based on this centuries-old notion we have of POC being, well, “natural” and “closer to the earth,” etc. While it’s pretty easy to conclude that “dreadlocks are dirty” in an area that... the only dreads you see are on a bunch of privileged middle-class kids who think it’s cool to emanate poverty, please don’t forget the racial roots of the style. While it seems like a small thing, doing so just reinforces the notions we have of POC and perpetuates inequality.
These are two valid points that I didn't think about while being hyperbolic about the hairstyle. A smarter joke would have been to not call for mocking everyone who has dreadlocks, but mocking the kind of dreadlocks that the suspected abuser sports—ratty, greasy dreads that make it impossible to tell where the hair stops and the beard begins. That style of dreads has so overwhelmed the image of "dreadlocks" for me that when I see someone whose dreadlocks actually look good, it's a shock. This is maybe a Portland-specific problem of having a negative view of dreadlocks. Or, more acutely, a Southeast Portland problem, especially in the summer near Colonel Summers Park.
Here's my conclusion from all this: It's fine to make fun of dreadlocks that are inarguably gross. But dismissing dreadlocks as a hairstyle categorically is unfair, because it lets a hairstyle that people of color have worn for generations be overshadowed by a mimicking crop of people who use dreadlocks as a symbol of earthy identity, often with aesthetically displeasing results.