Olga’s dreads are not cultural appropriation: fight me

Video version

In a pivotal scene from the Polish film Pokot, the ethereal hymn that the choir boys sing blends into a cover of the song “My Blood” (Moja Krew.) The church’s altar is decorated with deer skulls while the boy’s English teacher, Janina, looks on. However, when the priest begins to praise hunting, Janina, a vegetarian, gets upset and emotionally interrupts the sermon.
While the scene looks surreal, it’s not too far removed from reality, as the words the priest recites are not fiction. They’re a compilation of quotes author Olga Tokarczuk collected from actual sermons by real Catholic priests in Poland. In this conservative country, even being vegetarian or vegan is seen as something that challenges traditional values.olga meme
Recently, Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize for literature for her novel,The Book of Jacob. As she’s a feminist and vegetarian, and not afraid to take on the Catholic church, I think she’s the kind of public figure that Poland desperately needs.
On Facebook, I was liking my friends’ posts about her award, when I saw this meme. And one of my lefty friends mentioned her dreadlocks.
Then I saw a few people post on Twitter about her dreadlocks… not about her activism, or her award, but about her dreads.

Part 1: oh no we’re talking about cultural appropriation… again

I’ve spent some time thinking about this, and I gotta defend her hair. Specifically, I’d like to talk a bit about Polish history and culture, though I promise not to talk about the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was the kingdom of Poland and Lithuania.
If you’re not familiar, cultural appropriation is when one culture adopts elements from another disadvantaged, minority culture. Think white Victoria’s Secret models wearing Native American headdresses.
Personally, I think most of the time, cultural appropriation is a fairly low-stakes problem.
I have exceptions— don’t go in blackface (Thanks, Justin Trudeau!) or buy mass-produced dreamcatchers. You want a dreamcatcher? Buy from a Native seller.
I also don’t think that using Native American tribes as mascots is cultural appropriation; it’s just mockery. For example, this shirt formed by an intramural basketball team in Colorado would probably piss plenty of white Americans off. Don’t use people that were historically treated badly as your mascot, and don’t use racial slurs as sports nicknames.


But… what about dreadlocks?
After this video went viral, with a woman confronting a white man over his dreadlocks, debate about this hairstyle went mainstream. It’s a complicated one. While dreadlocks have been worn by many cultures over the centuries, from ancient Egyptians to Spartan fighters in ancient Greece to pre-Columbian Aztec priests, the modern style was popularized by Rastafarian culture in Jamaica. A big part of Rasta culture is the idea of living naturally, and not processing hair is part of that— and having dreads is a way to visually show one’s participation in the movement.
I’m calling shenanigans on the argument about dreads and Rastafarian culture— not because they’re not connected, but because black people aren’t criticized for having dreads but not being Rastafarian. And I’m deeply uncomfortable with making race the standard for issues like this, but not culture or religion.
To me, criticizing white people for having dreads is just trendy and lazy activism. Punks or others with Mohawks aren’t criticized in the same way, despite that being an example of a borrowed hairstyle to appear cool or edgy. Honestly, I find the discourse around this issue a little pointless: the argument divides leftists, confuses liberals and alienates centrists. If the goal is to make society less racist, I don’t see how having racial tests for certain hairstyles is going to further that goal.
Considering how white America has treated black hair—in regards to both standards of beauty and professionalism—I totally get why white Americans adopting a black hairstyle rubs people the wrong way.
But Tokarczuk, the author in question, is Polish, not American. And I don’t think anyone could argue that Polish culture is somehow a majority culture, especially compared with African-American culture.
When I first started researching this video, I decided to look for stuff written about dreadlocks and cultural appropriation… in Polish. About a page in of Googling stuff about “dredy” and “przywłaszczenie kultorowe” I thought: why am I doing this?
Why am I expecting Polish people to understand the United States’ history with racism, in regards to hair? Tokarczuk is not the only lefty Polish person I know sporting dreads. Moreover, why am I expecting them to speak English? To me, this view is incredibly American-centric. (Znalazlam artykuł na ten temat, w opisie.)
To give you an example of the problem with those type of expectations, here’s a pop quiz: can you find Poland on this map?


That’s because Poland isn’t on this map. And I wasn’t truthful— we are going to talk about the Polish Lithuaninan Commonwealth, and the historical differences between Western and Central Europe.

So, why didn’t Poland benefit from the age of imperialism? Let’s look at some history for context!

Part 2: historical context.

Poland was never part of the so-called “Age of Exploration” in the 1500s. Unlike Spain, Great Britain, or France, Poland never sent ships to the Americas for colonies. I’m not going to list the reasons for the kingdom’s decline, but decline it did— until the country was divided in half, with Russia taking one side, and Germany’s Prussia taking the other. Poland stayed off the map for over a hundred years. In fact, it wasn’t until the end of WWI that the partitioning and occupation ended.

But, less than 20 years after that, Poland was invaded and occupied by the Nazis; after WWII, Poland spent over 40 years under the draconian rule of the Soviet Union. When the country emerged from behind the Iron Curtain in 1989, they had some serious catching up to do. All the black market Levi’s and rock cassette tapes wouldn’t make up for the economic damage of Soviet-style Communism, the mental toll of terror by surveillance and the Citizen’s Militia, the Polish secret police, or the basic fact that, in terms of both infrastructure and culture, Poland was behind the times.
While the country has heard the colonial narrative of Africans as “others” via Hollywood, and I do think Poles have a responsibility to examine their literature and films with a critical eye… Poland never benefited from imperialism the way that certain Western European countries have. That’s why I don’t think it makes any sense to hold Polish people accountable for the evils caused by colonialism or imperialism.
Therefore, I don’t think it makes sense to treat dreadlocks in Poland the same way as in America. Few people here know or understand the significance hair has had for African Americans, and I’m not sure it’s fair to expect Poles to know. (Unless you think my history of Poland’s past 300 years was overly-simplified, and you want to offer a nuanced critique. But I don’t think that’s very many people watching.)
Also, if you’re judging Poles by the same standard as Americans, because Poles are white, I have some bad news. You’re making the same logistical mistake that white supremacists make: believing there is a white race. There is no white race. That idea is a social construct made up by racists. I don’t see the value in putting Polish people in the same basket as Americans, or Western European countries that participated in colonialism. Just because Poles are Caucasian doesn’t mean that they’re responsible for knowing about the history of race relations in the US.
I suppose you could make the argument that by adopting dreadlocks, Poles should understand the history behind the hairstyle. However… if that history belongs to Rastafarians, doesn’t that let Poles off the hook for understanding the issues of hair and racism in the US?
While researching this video, I found Tokarczuk’s own explanation for the dreadlocks: a nod to the “Polish plait,”or plica polonica, which dates to the 17th century. At first, I was a little skeptical, because I’d heard people justifying white dreadlocks by pointing to the Vikings. But, I found there is a historical tradition for this style, even though it’s called kołtun in Polish, and not dredy. Again, I think people are more inspired by dreadlocks than this museum exhibit. On the other hand, with her knowledge of Polish culture, I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt.

A big reason I’m giving her a pass is the extent to which Polish culture was suppressed under the partition. The epic poem Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz is beloved, in part, because it described Polish culture at a time when Poland was occupied by both Russia and German Prussia. The Polish plait dates from the 1600s and seems to be common until the 1800s, when Poland was still off the map. When a country has been occupied the way Poland has, it makes sense that they’d look back to history to rediscover possible lost traditions.
Not that I’m letting Poland— or Central Europe— off the hook for issues about race. There are real issues involving race and nationality in Poland that need to be addressed.

Part 3. Murzynek Bambo. Or, oh wow that’s racist

We’re going to skip over the centuries of anti-Semitism in Poland, because that would take too long, and it isn’t just a Polish issue. Same thing with how the Roma have been treated. To me, these issues are a problem for many European countries, and not specific to Central Europe.
Right now, Poland is undergoing a rise in nationalism. Angry men screaming “Poland for Poles” have become standard at Poland’s Independence Day marches. I try not to leave my house on Independence Day. This year, the racist nationalists refused to disperse when ordered by the police, and the marchers had water cannons used on them.
Disclaimer: the nationalists in Poland are anti-Semitic, but they’re also anti-immigrant, anti-gay, and anti-European Union.
When the Syrian refugee crisis was at its peak, Poland refused to allow any Muslims to settle there—emboldening countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic to do the same thing. Rooted in this was the idea that Muslims are inherently violent, unlike Polish people, who never throw Molotov cocktails through windows or get arrested for making bombs.

Sure, you can accuse me of cherry-picking these examples, and most Poles don’t do the things in these articles. I would counter that the vast majority of Muslims don’t commit terrorism.
Painting Muslims as violent, or gays as pedophiles, is a common tactic with the current ruling party, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (truth and justice in English). I think this type of state-sponsored bigotry is atrocious, as PiS controls what TVP, the country’s largest TV station, broadcasts. I think the right-wing media in Poland is literally poisoning people’s minds.
Poland’s stance on immigrants is extremely hypocritical. While refusing to help Syrians, the country has seen a large influx of Ukrainians. While Ukrainians do experience some harassment—like these stickers in Ukrainian that had a razor blade embedded in them—it’s nothing like what Middle Easterners face. This is because in addition to being white, the Polish and Ukrainian language are really similar, so they can assimilate quickly.
Say you can’t deal with the awfulness of politics, and want to analyze pop culture instead? Then forget dreadlocks. I’ve seen some super off-putting images and representations of black people in Poland.
Like Palma butter, which has this African woman with exaggerated lips on the label.
Or these cakes. I am not going to say what these are actually called, because… well… oh fine. They’re called the n-word followed by a slang term for breasts. And I’m certain that Poles realize how bad this looks: this bilingual website with traditional cakes doesn’t have a recipe for this cake in English. On YouTube, this Polish woman posted a how-to titled “The cake with the controversial name.”
It’s not just racism in the grocery store. Once, while I was trying to explain the Native American mascot issue in a class, a Polish student brought up the poem Murzynek Bambo, a poem about an African boy. Written in 1923 by a Polish Jew, it’s a fairly short poem intended for children, but the end lines have him not wanting to take a bath, for fear he’ll turn white.
And I’m going to quote this Polish woman, who wrote a letter to the editor: while she likes the poem, that ending made her uncomfortable.
While I’m talking about the ways Poles view race, I should mention the outcry on Reddit over the Witcher casting call involving Ciri. It was leaked that Netflix was looking for a “BAME” actress, or “black, Asian, non-white minority ethnic” to play Ciri in their adaption of the beloved Polish fantasy series.

I’m a little on the fence about this one, mainly because the Witcher already has an established look to the characters because of the video game adaptation. Further, when reading Sapkowski’s books, I always pictured the elves as people of color… because, well, the books deal with the subject of racism and discrimination, with elves and other magical races being oppressed. Why not make the elves Tartars or Turkish? That would visually show the issues the book explores, and fit with the history of Poland. I think a POC actress for elf Eithné would work great.
I’m not against black characters in the Witcher, but I thought putting out a casting call for a “BAME” actress for Ciri was done by someone who didn’t read or really appreciate the Witcher series, or the themes it contained. While I don’t buy the argument that the Witcher series is set in a legit historical Poland, and so it all white, part of the story is… Ciri’s a princess. On the logistical side, a big part of the books is Ciri’s bloodline, meaning if her ethnicity was changed, her parents should be the same ethnicity, along with the imposter Ciri when she goes on the run. If they cast her family and doppelgänger appropriately, I’d be on board with a non-white Ciri.
Still, I thought the massive sub-Reddit devoted to hating on the idea was a total overreaction. And I think it does point to Poland needing to deal with its own issues of race, which I think it needs to do without also dealing with the US’s baggage.
Especially when the argument about dreadlocks being off-limits boils down to race. It’s not Jamaicans, or Rastafarians, or another group that is allowed to wear dreads without criticism. It’s only Africans or African-Americans. To me, this is bringing race into the equation— in a way that makes me really, really uncomfortable.
For example, I can understand why religious symbols should only be used by one culture, especially minority ones. The practice of smudging, or burning sage, used in death cleansing rituals by some Native tribes, is one. Unless you grew up in Ojibwe culture, buying a bundle of an endangered plant species at Whole Foods is obnoxious. But the hair argument is not about culture or religion— it’s about race.
I think using race as a measure to someone’s access to a culture is a bad standard. For example, I have a student in one of my classes with parents from both Ukraine and Africa. I think the same Twitter poster from the beginning would look at her and decide that it’s ok for her to wear dreadlocks— despite the fact that this student grew up outside of Africa.
For a country like Poland, where many people have fled or immigrated over the centuries— because of the partitioning, because of the world wars, because of Communism— the issue of culture and national identity is blurry. A close friend of mine bemoans the fact that he speaks both Polish and English with a slight accent, as his family left Poland right before he became a teenager. I’ve met a number of Poles whose families moved to Canada and the US, then moved back— meaning they have relatives on both sides of the Atlantic as well as dual citizenship.
I am also concerned about the use of race because of the slippery slope back to nationalism and racism. Since living in Poland, I’ve been researching more about Slavic deities and pagans— and I was pretty horrified to discover that there is a modern Slavic pagan movement— but it’s racist. The members believe that only true Slavic people get to take part. Foreigners are not welcome.
While Americans might look at me and decide that I’m Polish enough, with my Polish ancestry, a Polish nationalist or Slavic Native Faith member would see me as a foreigner, my few pints of blood and heavily accented Polish counting for nothing.
Which is why the debate around dreadlocks bothers me. Culture is an identity. Race can be, but not always. The same logic that says white people can’t wear dreadlocks also keeps me away from taking part in Slavic pagan or wiccan rituals.
If the goal is to work toward a less-racist society, getting tangled up in minutiae like this doesn’t help. One of the Twitter posters about Tokarczuk’s dreadlocks compared her with a Holocaust denier. I really think that if our goal is to make society less racist, there are larger, more systemic issues that we need to look at. Getting bogged down in shouting matches on social media only distracts from real issues and real activism.
To me, people who criticize her dreadlocks are giving a shallow, drive-by critique of Polish culture. And if you get huffy about people expecting to know details about some random country’s culture… like Poland? Well, then why the hell do you expect the rest of the world to know about the details of American culture? Our perspective isn’t the only one that matters.
I understand the question of cultural appropriation is not an easy one to answer. In some ways, that question reminds me of Tokarczuk’s characters: while I often identify with them, her characters are not always morally “good” people. The way her work indirectly looks at questions of morality is one I find compelling. She presents very genuine people dealing with situations in ways that are often very troubling, but also understandable.
I find her work captivating, as her prose is lyrical and her stories real. While living in Poland has made me understand a lot of the references in her work, what I love is how she can take distinct settings and situations in Poland and make them accessible by finding universal truths in them.
All of us have different perspectives shaped by our different experiences and cultures– yet there are some universal feelings that almost all of us share. Seeing experiences or feelings I’ve had in a different cultural setting makes me realize how alike we are, even across different backgrounds.
Her novel, Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead, the book the film Pokot was based on, features an anti-heroine who takes on hunters and the church, which was pretty controversial in Poland. Janine, the novel’s main character, was fairly eccentric: she lived in a remote mountain village, translated William Blake’s poetry into Polish, made astrology charts for people she knew, and often discussed her “troubles,” her euphemism for mental and physical health issues. However, after she won the Nobel, libraries here can’t keep up with demand for her books… causing conservative PiS party members to try to keep up with the demand. I’m happy to see them putting away politics away, at least for the moment.
If Poland is going to change for the better, it needs more people like her.
If you take away something from this video, I hope it’s to check out her books. Many of them, including Primeval and Other Times and House of Day, House of Night have been translated into English. Maybe with the award she’s won, even more of her books will be translated into more languages.



The scene from Pokot: https://youtu.be/clH1hzRYmsw

Her work being controversial: 



On conservative criticism of vegans:


Victoria’s Secret model criticism:


Fighting Whites:



On dreadlocks:

https://abc7news.com/education/roommate-of-woman-in-viral-dreadlocks-video-at-sfsu-s onpeaks-out/1269086/



The issues the US has with African American hair:


On dreadlocks in Polish: 


Video on Poland’s borders:


On Polish plica polonica, a style similar to dreadlocks: (Kołtun in Polish)





Violent nationalists in Poland:


Egyptian-owned restaurant in Poland hit with Molotov cocktail:


Bomber in Wroclaw: 


Influx of Ukrainian refugees: https://www.politico.eu/article/poland-two-faced-immigration-strategy-ukraine-migrants/

Ukrainian stickers with razors on trams:


This racist cake:





The letter to the editor:


A translation of the poem:


The casting call for Ciri:


No one knows how to say this name.



Slavic Native Faith:




Tags: Olga Tokarczuk, Olga Tokarczuk Nobel, cultural appropriation, cultural appropriation dreadlocks, plica polonica


17 thoughts on “Olga’s dreads are not cultural appropriation: fight me

Add yours

  1. you clearly have not learned the history of dreads in jamaica. it did. it originate there, but in africa. her dreads are.m cultural appropriation

  2. you clearly have not learned the history of dreads in jamaica. it did not originate there, but in africa. her dreads are.m cultural appropriation

  3. you clearly have not learned the history of dreads in jamaica. it did not originate there, but in africa. her dreads are cultural appropriation

  4. So with the logic that if a white person could not wear dreadlocks because it’s not culturally appropriate doesn’t that mean that black people can’t wear sombreros or eat tacos because you are stealing it from the Hispanic race which is a minority race?

  5. Napiszę po polsku, bo pewnie zrozumiesz.
    1. Dzięki za ten wpis
    2. Mocno siedzę w mitologii słowiańskiej, rodzimowierstwie itd, zauważyłam sporo ruchów nacjonalistycznych, które (o ironio) zmieniają to jak miałaby wyglądać słowiańska kultura pod swoją wizję, by udowodnić, że jest najnajlepsza, szerzą nieprawdziwe informacje na jej temat, to wszystko jest przerażające. a szczęście są też nienacjonalistyczne osoby rodzimowiercze, nie zabraniające kultywowania tej religii nie-Słowianom.
    Pozdrawiam 🙂

    1. thank you for your comment! I’ve been reading about Slavic mythology, and I really enjoy it— I won’t let the nationalists discourage me.
      I’m writing in English, I hope you understand 🙂

  6. Acha i jeszcze jedno – kołtun był/jest uznawany za zaraźliwą chorobę wywoływaną przez klątwę, nie za coś pożądanego. Niektórzy nadal tę ,,chorobę” leczą (praktykami magicznymi).

  7. Kurde, zapomniałam dodać, że warto zwrócić uwagę na obecność dredów w środowisku alternatywnym w Polsce oraz na praktyki religijne w których zapuszcza się dredy. Biali też mogą je wyznawać.

  8. I think there is another layer. What is considered racist now and what was 10-20 years ago. I think most of us read “Murzynek bambo” when we were kids and none of us thought of if as racist. I personally really liked the character. You have to understand that we don’t have that many black people in our towns, and 10-20 years ago it was a huge news if you saw such person. Maybe the origin of word “Murzyn” was an insult at the beginning, but most of us grew up thinking of it as simply a description of a black person (like caucasian for white people), not a slur. It began to be considered slur, when dictionaries started using it as translation of the N-word. My grandma used to love her favorite Syrian doctor, and she called him “Ten przemiły Pan murzyn (The kindest Mr Murzyn)”, and she brought him chocolates or homemade cake each time she had an appointment. She did not have a chance to learn that its not a nice word and when we told her she did not believe. She said that her whole life it was not a slur so why now it suddenly is. I don’t understand why we are expected to know all of the nuances of what is appropriate in the US and western countries. If I say something inappropriate I don’t know about, people tell me that I should educate myself on black history in the US. Sure, I can do it and I am doing it because it is genuinely interesting, but you can’t expect everyone in the world to do it. US kids are not learning about Partition of Poland and history of our culture and no one is expecting them to know it. If someone assumes something about my culture I correct them but I am not offended or angry.

    1. That was part of my larger point, though— that Americans can’t expect everyone around the world the be familiar with their country’s history with racism.

      However: I do expect Polish people to be familiar with their own issues with racism and bigotry, whether it’s how Jews, the Romani or Middle Easteners are treated. As for the word “murzyn,” I’ve seen a number of Black Polish people talking about how they don’t like that term. Rejecting the term murzyn doesn’t have anything to do with Western culture— it has to do with listening to Black Poles who say the term is more often used as an insult than as a term of endearment.
      For example, this video, in Polish: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwIfFRmJM0c

    2. there was a whole action by Black Poles called “Don’t call me Murzyn”, i think if they find it a sl*r/insult etc we need to respect it, also as much as I know many people who have never used this word in derogatory way, it still has tons of negative package, like a lot if sayings an proverbs that picture black people in negative way and have this word in them.

  9. about kołtun/polish plait- there’s such an illness indeed, but that’s one of the meanings coined later, for sure since the 1500s (but maybe even earlier) primary belief was that illnesses leaves your body through that kołtun and it itself protects you from demons and witches, whole hairstyle worked as some kind of placebo, some folks believed it’s necessary for them to live and you cannot cut it off unless “szeptucha” or a priest (or whoever was there) tells you so, then you needed to proceed with whole ceremony. If you cut someone’s kołtun just like that, due to their strong belief they will die or go blind/deaf/both, they might actually die, dunno how about going blind. (crazy i know) all kołtuns were later called an illness as one if means of “fighting” with them (the way they were made and peasants generally low hygiene in 1800s made it super unhealthy, but yeah a lot of these hairstyles were made on purpose and indeed it looked like one huge dread, though some people had few of them, or even a lot(?)

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