Marc Jacobs’s Tone-Deaf Appropriation of Dreadlocks

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A photo posted by Marc Jacobs (@themarcjacobs) on

Marc Jacobs committed the most blatant act of cultural appropriation at this month’s New York Fashion Week. He felt it was necessary to outfit his models with rainbow dreadlocks. To make matters worse, this was his response to the ensuing outcry:

And all who cry “cultural appropriation” or whatever nonsense about any race of skin color wearing their hair in a particular style or manner – funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair. I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race- I see people. I’m sorry to read that so many people are so narrow minded … Love is the answer. Appreciation of all and inspiration from anywhere is a beautiful thing. Think about it.

A simple “I apologize to those who are offended. That was not my intent,” would have been enough to put this all to bed. After all, it’s not like he put his models in blackface, as Claudio Cutugno did at last year’s Milan Fashion Week.

Jacobs subsequently issued an apology for his colorblind comments.

He confirmed that he can differentiate between white and black, but he forgot to express remorse for writing: “funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair.” What’s funny about it? I missed the joke. Perhaps it’s because I’m a black woman who knows all too well that my natural hair is problematic for many. Black women have been bombarded with messages about white hair being ideal for centuries. Many black women still don’t feel comfortable in corporate jobs without straightening their hair. Our afros are often deemed unprofessional.

Earlier this year — 2016 — after public outrage, a Kentucky school was forced to lift a ban on natural black hairstyles. Right now in Florida, black high school students are protesting for their rights to wear head wraps.

This is why it is so offensive when someone accuses black women of appropriation for straightening our hair. If society would stop hating us for the hair that grows out of our heads, and allow us to wear afros in the classroom and to client meetings, perhaps we wouldn’t straighten our hair.

I was 26 years old and living in South Africa the first time I wore my afro out at work. Even working in New York, I felt uncomfortable leaving my afro out in fear of being a spectacle at the office—I’d always put it in a bun. I’m one of the lucky ones.

The natural hair movement is one of liberation. It is freeing. We are at a time when black women are actively fighting against hair straightening. We are owning and celebrating our own beauty ideals. We are owning and celebrating ourselves.

Let’s put all of the black hair love aside for a moment, and focus on the dreadlocks. Ever wonder why they are called dread locks? In the 1930s, Ethiopian Rastafarian activists vowed not to cut their hair until their Emperor, Ras Tafari, was reinstated. Later in the 20th century, the Rastafarians’ protest act was adopted by black nationalists, inciting fear in their opponents — hence the word “dread.”

The origin of the hairstyle was an act of protest. This is why we consider it appropriation when white people dread their hair, no matter how popular the trend is. No one is saying that Marc Jacobs isn’t allowed to explore dreadlocks, but he should do it without being ignorant to history and context. More importantly, he should do it without comparing the act of white people appropriating dreads to the act of black women straightening their hair due to enforced social rules in this country.

Now that we’ve established Marc Jacobs’s ignorance, let’s get back to the celebration of black hair. This is the silver lining of the Fashion Week foolishness: it has provided a timely opportunity to celebrate black hair love.

Lorna Simpson, "Wigs (Portfolio)" (1994), 21 lithographs on felt with 17 lithographed felt text panels (courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami)
Lorna Simpson, “Wigs (Portfolio)” (1994), 21 lithographs on felt with 17 lithographed felt text panels (courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami) (click to enlarge)

I remember the day I decided to go natural: it was when I saw Lorna Simpson’s “Wigs” in the 30 Americans exhibition in 2011. I looked at that work and realized the greatest thing I can do is be myself, completely, kinky hair and all.

It is a personal protest to be a black person with natural hair. It is a declaration of self-love despite decades of imagery that says we’re not beautiful. All of this is trivialized when white supermodels parade the runway with fake dreads.

I imagine that the camaraderie among black people with dreads is similar to the camaraderie I feel when I see another girl rocking her fro. There’s an “I see you” moment that is unique to the black hair experience. I do not feel this when I see a white woman with natural hair. I imagine it doesn’t come when black people with dreads see white people with dreads, either. The experiences are different, the history is different, and the context is different.

The problem with cultural appropriation is that it’s the appropriator who defines what’s acceptable. Often times, we aim to understand their justifications, while minimizing the feelings of the offended. This is precisely what Marc Jacobs did with his comments. He told black people that we shouldn’t be offended. He doesn’t get to decide, and he certainly doesn’t get to flip the script and accuse black people of being part of the appropriation problem.

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