I’ve been asked several times about dreadlocks. Different question each time, but somehow people think I am a “go to person” on the topic. I’m not. But being that I sport dreadlocks, I probably know a little more than your average ‘baldhead’.

First lesson: those of the Rastafarian faith call everyone else ‘baldhead’. The explanation I got in my youth is that ‘badlhead’ simply means someone who does not subscribe to the Rastafarian way of life and spirituality. Benign, yes? In some quarters, it isn’t benign, it’s an insult. According to Urban Dictionary:

In Rastafarianism, a baldhead refers to anyone who conforms to common Western standards of hair styling. This is because the short, clean-cut look is often representative (in their eyes) of someone who has adopted a colonial, materialistic and spiritually-bankrupt worldview.

In contrast, a person who grows their hair out, such as into an afro or dreadlocks, is representative (in their eyes) of someone who has let go of obsession with external, physical appearances and turned their attention inward, into the spiritual realm.

The first time someone questioned me about dreadlocks was actually back in Jamaica when I first started my own journey. (Side note: it’s not just a hairstyle, it is a journey). In New Kingston, right at the intersection of Dominica Drive and Knutsford Boulevard, there used to be a local goods store out of a trailer. I don’t know if he still sells there or not. I haven’t been back to that spot in more than a decade. Lot of Rastafarian themed stuff, including incense and woven bags and wooden sculptures. One morning, I was walking along minding my own business and I hear:

”Dawta! Why such a pretty gyal ah follow Babylon tings?”

I was confused and asked him what he meant. (Side note: for Rastafarians, “Babylon” represents the oppressive Western state). Basically, he saw my baby dreadlocks and assumed I was just “following fashion”. I wasn’t. At the time, my journey was young. Very young, but it was NOT just a hairstyle for me. It never has been. I explained to him that for a long long time, I had chemically straightened my hair. It was what everybody did. After a while, I started to feel … “odd” about it. I could not put my hand on it precisely, but the discomfort was there and growing. When I was told that my chemically straightened hair was literally rotting off my head, I made the decision to go natural. (How odd is it that when black women cease to process their hair, it is known as “going natural”).

Because I worked in the corporate world, that connection with the so-called “oppressive Western-style state” required me to maintain a certain level of “Western decorum” – which meant my dreadlocks had to attempt to look neat. It felt like a contradiction then, but I had no other choice really. Not if I wanted to maintain my independence. And so, my dreadlocks were “cultivated” and “groomed”. It was a compromise.

For Rastafarians, embracing all that Rastafarianism embodies includes abandoning all aspects of Western ideals. No more Western style dress, no more Western style hair, no more Western style norms. Part of the criticism of Rastafarianism is the misogyny that is wrapped up in the movement – their women don’t work, as a rule, and are limited in the kind of exposure outside the home they are allowed.

So this Rasta and I chatted for a few minutes about how I had ended up where I was. It was a journey in discovering who I was, is what my explanation summed up to be. I was 16 when I began to question everything about the world I was born in. Dreadlocks was a natural and logical stop along that journey. I thought about just going afro. In fact, I did it once. Cut off all my hair but it didn’t feel right. Dreadlocks felt right.

At various other times in my life, I’ve been asked other questions about it. Is it ok for white people to wear dreadlocks. How do I do my own dreadlocks. Where does one go to get their dreadlocks done. And often my answers include the admonition that it is not just a hairstyle and that for anyone – including white people – that decision MUST include some amount of self-education about Rastafarianism, the history of black people, and the stigma attached to black hair.

I don’t personally have a problem with white dreadlocks. To each his own. But I am acutely aware of all the nuance surrounding it and I do my best to educate those who are open to it about how problematic it can be. At least one person I have spoken to about it seemed to have changed their mind about doing it. And if I can make one person think deeper about dreadlocks than “just a hairstyle”, then I feel I have done my duty.

As for my journey … I am still on it. Who I am is buried deep under all kinds of layers of history and nuance and complexity. But I can tell you that because I chose this route, I know more about myself today than I did 15 years ago and what I know now is empowering.