Dreadlocks and Cultural Appropriation

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‘Cultural appropriation’ is a concept dealing with the adoption of one group’s culture by another group. A current complaint is against Little Mix singer Jesy Nelson for wearing dreadlocks. This follows a previous example in the media when an African-American basketball player complained about a Chinese player wearing dreadlocks. The latter noticed in response that the former wore tattoos of Chinese characters.

It would all be to our significant detriment if it was taboo to share ideas and practices among different groups of people. Then only the English could read Shakespeare or play football. Only the Greeks could have democracy. Christianity would be the preserve of Palestine. Radiography would be restricted to France. Then again, why draw the boundaries so generously? Perhaps rugby is the cultural heritage only of those who are resident at Rugby.

If we are going to draw arbitrary lines here (as there is a tendency to do with immigration), then why not expand out instead? Then what is invented in New York or Delhi might belong culturally to the population of the Earth. Whether one subscribes to Darwinian evolution or the literal truth of the Bible, we are all related anyway.

Sometimes a distinction is drawn between borrowing another’s culture, rather than taking it. This is unconvincing. A Buddhist in England is not borrowing the ideas, but making them their own.

Nevertheless, it is wrong to mock living cultures, and thereby belittle those who practise them. (This does not stop us from arguing respectfully but vehemently that some practises are morally wrong.) And it adds insult to injury to adopt cultural practices while exploiting or subjugating those people whose practices they are. But then all forms of exploitation or subjugation are objectionable.

In contrast, we should celebrate and encourage the exchange and development of good ideas and practices. This is so whether they concern our political institutions, or advances in knowledge, or how we express ourselves through clothing and decoration. Culture can be shared properly.

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