There’s a video that’s making the rounds in the media in which a black college student calls a white college student out on his dreadlocks and the issues of cultural appropriation that surrounds them. And like clockwork came the “dreads are in every culture” bit. Here’s the thing though, even we take that as truth (ignoring the historical inaccuracies that generally follow in such explanations) it doesn’t matter because it is not those histories that white people channel when they lock up their hair or any other practice that is “borrowed” from people of color.
Whenever they faced with the accusation of cultural appropriation be it wearing locks in your hair or baby wearing, white people tend to claim that there is some connection with their own ancestry that gives them the right engage in such an activity, one that people of color have likely been made to feel ashamed of.
Let’s look at baby wearing as an example because unlike other issues of cultural appropriation, we can definitely say that white have in the past swaddled their babies against their bodies with pieces of cloth. There’s evidence in stories, art, you name it. That being said, no one is buying a $500 finely spun bamboo knit wrap because it harkens back to a woman working the wheat fields in Medieval France.
The image being sold is that of an “earthy” woman of color. The revival of this practice was brought back to the western world as something white women could do to be more “attached” parents. Meanwhile, women who have never stopped wearing their babies are considered poor and savage.
Do white people have a history of wrapping their babies? Yes. Is the way that it is presented in today’s world culturally appropriative? Also yes.
The same can be said for Yoga, belly dancing, and of course dreadlocks to name a few. The history of different practices is very complex and can span a huge amount of cultures which may in fact include white people or have a history with whiteness, however, the origins are less important in the discussion of cultural appropriation than what they are currently associated with.
If the thing you are doing or want to do is currently associated with People of Color then the onus is on you to make sure you are engaging respectively, that your manner of practice isn’t causing harm to marginalized people. Regardless of whether or not a practice was once, long ago, tradition of your people (so sayeth the tome of Wikipedia), if it is associated with People of Color today, and they tell you it’s cultural appropriation, then that’s what it is.