Justin Bieber has a polarizing new hairstyle, one that elicited both calls of cultural appropriation and praise amongst some of his peers: dreadlocks.
Although celebrities are known and admired for their sense of style and trendsetting taste, there’s a fine line between appreciation and appropriation that social media users continually debate, define and defend.
But Bieber is far from the first celebrity to face such accusations.
Kim Kardashian West was slammed in 2018 for attributing her small braided cornrows to the white ’80s movie star/model Bo Derek, though the style originated in Africa. In 2020, Adele stirred controversy by wearing Bantu knots, another traditional African hairstyle. The list goes on.
“In its simplest terms, cultural appropriation is stealing something from a culture that is not one’s own and reaping the benefits or profits from it,” says Neal Lester, founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.
But what qualifies as appropriation? What is an acceptable form of cultural appreciation? There’s a distinct difference.
Cultural appropriation versus appreciation
The Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”
Celebrity hairstylist Monae Everett, author of “Get Out of Your Own Way” and the creator of Texture Style Awards, describes appropriation as “playing dress-up.”
“It’s allowing the majority to come in and take what’s suitable for them without ever acknowledging how they downplay, minimize or downright disrespect minorities,” says Everett, who teaches styling of different natural hair textures.
For example, a white model wears dreadlocks on the runway as a fashion statement while fashion critic Giuliana Rancic referred to Zendaya’s faux locs as likely smelling of “patchouli oil and weed” on the Oscars red carpet in 2015.
In comparison, cultural appreciation “is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally,” according to Greenheart.org, an organization that facilitates cultural exchange programs.
Learning a new taco recipe is a form of appreciation, Lester says, but wearing a “sombero because it’s Cinco de Mayo, drinking tequila and changing your accent” is appropriation because it “reduces something to a kind of performance.”
Lester wears his hair in locs (commonly referred to as dreadlocks, a term that holds a historically negative connotation) and says you can appreciate elements of a culture that is not your own by “giving credit to the people who created it.”
The distinction between appropriation and appreciation is a gray area in pop culture, but the difference is not as “complicated” as people make it seem, Lester says.
Why cultural appropriation is harmful
Cultural appropriation by a dominant culture is harmful to underrepresented cultures because it reduces cultural significance and reinforces double standards.
While Bieber’s locs may be perceived as trendy or cutting edge, Jay Z was described as “unkept” when wearing freeform locs at the European premiere of the “The Lion King” in 2019. Bieber is credited with being a trendsetter, while people of color’s natural hair is discriminated against, policed and oppressed.
Bieber isn’t “held to the same standard as a person of color” wearing locs, says Everett, a celebrity hairstylist. Locs are considered “unkept or dirty” on a POC, but an “entertainer can put it on for fun and say, ‘Isn’t this cool?’ ”
In Bieber’s case, “he’s not acknowledging the way Black people and others who wear locs are told we can’t go into certain public spaces,” Lester says. “Or how we have to have a CROWN Act,” referring to legislation that would make race-based hair discrimination in hiring and education illegal. (The CROWN Act has only passed in 10 states so far.)
“We have policies, from schools to the military, that say you can’t wear dreadlocks. These are racialized codes that are used to discriminate,” Lester says. “Bieber can take his dreadlocks off and still be a white guy with a whole lot of privilege in this country.”
USA TODAY has reached out to Bieber’s representative for comment.
The U.S. Army, for example, just updated its grooming policy in February to lift restrictions on soldiers wearing braids, twists, locs or cornrows “as long as it maintains a neat and professional appearance.”
Even the term dreadlocks is rooted in racism.
Everett explains that the term is from the 1950s when “the British invaded Kenya and said locs were so ugly, they called it the ‘dreaded’ style. When you say dreadlocks, there is a negative connotation.” Instead, she says the natural style should be referred to as locs, denoting how hair locks into fused coils over time.
‘My culture is not a costume’
When someone dresses up as a “Rastafarian” for Halloween, donning dreadlocks and red, green and yellow clothing, they are perpetuating harmful stereotypes that dehumanize a group of people.
“You’re Jammin’ this Halloween, mon, in this Rasta Hat with Dreadlocks. So sing about Ja like Bob Marley or Tosh,” reads a Spirit Halloween costume description. One review from 2014 says, “I wore this for fun took it to work and got a lot of laughs it was so fun.”
“There is a whole cultural identity associated with hair,” Lester says. “You don’t just put on a wig and walk out the door because it’s cool without understanding.”
To the Rastafarian movement, dreadlocks symbolize the Lion of Judah and are inspired by Nazarites of the Bible. (Leviticus 21:5 reads, “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard nor make any cuttings in their flesh.”)
A Rastafarian costume, however, strips the group’s spiritual beliefs down to dreadlocks, several mainstream reggae musicians, marijuana and a mocking accent.
There are many iterations of #mycultureisnotacostume, including geishas, Indians, sheiks and Día de Muertos face paint.
What celebs (or anyone) can do when they realize they’ve crossed the line into appropriation
One of the best ways to appreciate a culture is by taking the time to listen to the people who identify with it, instead of “woke washing,” which Lester defines as “jumping on the bandwagon when you really don’t know what you’re doing.”
“People can tell when something is authentic and when it’s a performance,” says Lester, adding that actions are more meaningful than empty lip service. “Show me what you’re doing. What have you done to uplift people’s understanding or what have you done to educate yourself?”
But Everett says the best apology is not crossing the line into appropriation in the first place by doing your research ahead of time: “Just avoid it from the beginning and say what the hairstyle is, why you are wearing it and where it came from.”