The Rag | Pop Culture

Is Justin Bieber’s Cultural Appropriation of Locs Worth Talking About?

Accountability is important but so is decentering whiteness

“Laaaaaaawd, why won’t white folks just stop with this nonsense?” asked Black people this week about Justin Biber’s hair. Photo by Kory Williams on Unsplash.

Justin Bieber’s new dreadlock hairstyle went viral amid allegations of cultural appropriation this week. This isn’t the first time he fell into some peak whiteness and, Lord knows, it probably will not be the last.

Let me spell it out ICYMI (and clearly many people have): a lot of Black and brown folks find it offensive when white people loc their hair because a) it is a style deeply rooted in our culture and b) we are still castigated for wearing the style at work, at school, and on the red carpet.

Historically, I have not been vocal about hair-related cultural appropriation. My hippie years desensitized me to the rather awful sight of white people in so-called dreadlocks, those wispy straight roots that thickened into felted, tarantula-leg-like ropes. And let’s be real, the mainstream conversation around cultural appropriation was different—well, non-existent in my social circle—back in the late ’90s and early aughts. Mostly, I was baffled at how my white friends could even get their lank locks to loc in the first place.

These days, I have a deeper understanding of cultural appropriation, and I agree that locs are a style white people should just avoid—and for more than just aesthetic reasons. Still, I don’t feel like I need to call out every single instance when they choose to don dreads.

I recognize that everyone has different feelings about this, and that these feelings are informed by different life experiences. I’ve never been discriminated against for wearing locs, though I have been the target of myriad microaggressions related to wearing my hair natural and in braids. (“OMG! You look just like Bo Derek!” is my personal favorite.)

Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash

Seeing white people sporting dreads inspires in me the same feelings I imagine Gen Zers have when they see millennials in skinny jeans: First, the full-body eye roll. Then, a spark of irritation that this is, indeed, still a thing. Finally, wonderment that anyone would go to such effort to look so ridiculous, and maybe even a little prick of pity, depending on the day.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the limitless bandwidth required to rage-tweet and decry on Insta this particular instance of cultural appropriation—especially since it is the second time Justin Bieber has succumbed to his whiter instincts in this manner. Unlike all the world’s major news outlets, I’m not even convinced this thing is newsworthy.

Given the events of the past year —really, the past 400 years — I’m using my time and energy to learn more about anti-racism and Black feminism and unlearn internalized racism and whitewashed U.S. history presented as truth.

As I recently wrote about here, unlike many Black Americans, I didn’t learn this stuff at home or, later, at my conservative Christian college. So doing the crash course now is taking a steep mental and emotional toll. But research suggests that even POC who are further on their learning journey than I am can still be re-traumatized by exposure to depictions of racism, even if the purpose is educational.

With that in mind, I know I have to be intentional about conserving my mental and emotional energy. Instead of using these precious resources on Adele’s Bantu knots or Bieber’s locs, whatever I have left after educating myself must be dedicated to self-care and seeking out Black joy.

And this is where I become ambivalent. We do need to call out injustice, and it is absolutely unjust that white people with locs are treated as cool and edgy, while Black people rockin’ the same hairstyle—our hairstyle—are discriminated against. But when do we accept that Justin Bieber and other white celebs, influencers, and brands are just going to keep doing dreads no matter what we say? What is more important: accountability or conserving our energy?

Now, if you’re not Black, you may have more bandwidth for this Bieber thing. (We tired, y’all.) But instead of jumping on the anti-cultural appropriation bandwagon and virtue signaling about this all over your sosh, I invite you to consider investing time in learning why this bothers Black people so much and then educating others about why it’s wrong.

Black person with braided hair in topknot laughing with eyes closed.
Black person with braided hair in topknot laughing with eyes closed.
Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

When I saw the sheer number of headlines about Justin Bieber’s hair this week—in prestige publications with reporting I admire—I couldn’t help but think how I’d so much rather read about things like, say, the positive impact of the CROWN Act, legislation that prohibits workplace discrimination based on hairstyle, in the nine states that have adopted it since 2019.

As a writer, I know how tight media budgets are right now, and that the amount of money available for covering Black and brown stories is infinitesimally less. The stories that run tend to focus on our pain, what has been and what continues to be taken from us, because those are the ones that get clicks and shares.

There’s a place for calling out cultural appropriation. But I want to read—and write—deep dives into the cultural history of Black hair in America more. I want to read about what wearing locs means for celebrities like Zendaya who poetically wrote, “locs are a symbol of strength and beauty, almost like a lion’s mane,” in a 2015 social media response to critics who dragged her for wearing them to the Oscars that year.

As humans, our time and energy are our most precious and, consequently, our most limited resources, and they are even more scarce for Black and brown women. It is incredibly important to hold accountable people like Justin Bieber, especially because he has made strides to recognize Black contributions to his career.

But, for me, it’s equally critical to recognize the point where amplifying a specific incident of white cultural appropriation no longer serves us. It is my hope that, if we have the wisdom to find that line, if we can avoid giving undue attention and engagement to stories that center white misdeeds, then maybe we can open up space and create demand for stories that actually center us, our beauty, and our joy.

American freelancer in Istanbul writing about culture, mental health, race & travel. Bylines everywhere from Al Jazeera to Zora. Tw: @Ruth_Terry | IG: @ruth.ist

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