“It’s just Hair” – the most common response by white people to any conversation about Black hairstyles being appropriated. Sure Karen, to you it is simply just hair, you get up and fix your bob, go to work, eat your lunch and return home without a second thought about your tresses. What’s the problem? What you fail to understand though, is that your experience is not universal. It’s a sad fact that the default “white experience” is what is always referenced when gas lighting Black people’s account of acts of racism and appropriation. It’s almost as if you think we’re equal.
In 2018, we’re still reading stories of Black children being sent home, excluded and bullied for their natural hair. Professional adults being given warnings and threats of being sacked for wearing their hair in its natural state or in the protective hairstyles we have used for hundreds of years.This isn’t the same as white people being told off for dyeing their hair green for their hotel receptionist role, this is our culture and it is not for the taking. As a Black woman addicted to social media, I am completely sick of being bombarded with images of white People using my culture as a costume. I’m sick of witnessing white people being completely ignorant to the implications of how Black people navigate through a racist society. It’s even worse when they are aware of this but go ahead and do it anyway just because they think their faux box braids make them look “edgy”. I can not stop white people from putting their slippery hair into Fulani braids or prevent them from attempting to create locs by matting their hair. I’m not going to police y’all like how it has been done to us. My intention with this post is to give my opinion and lived experience, and bring awareness and education to those who did not know before. What you do with this information is up to you, but yes there is a wrong choice, yes I am judging you and yes it does make you a bad person.
So, let’s get into some basic knowledge of the hairstyles and what appropriation is. Disclaimer: Anyone who wants to come at me to dispute the origins of these hairstyles and their values needs to have several seats. I am not getting into the labour of “proving” anything to you, do your own further research if you require it and learn to respect cultures you ignorant fool. What is cultural appropriation? The Cambridge Dictionary defines it 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”. When it comes to Black hairstyles, the typical complaint from white people I see is that “Black people do not have a monopoly on braids”, and yes in a way this is true, there are examples of braided hairstyles that are part of non Black cultures in history. However, depictions of women with cornrowed hairstyles have been found in Stone Age paintings in the Tassili Plateau of the Sahara, dated back as far as 3000 B.C. Another instance of braids being traced back to Black origins is from the burial site called Saqqara in Egypt. These styles continued to be repeated and so the tradition of braiding hair has definitely kept its place in African culture, and is still popular to this day. The Himba people of Namibia have been braiding their hair for centuries; the popular box braids Black people wear today are not dissimilar to the Eembuvi braids of Namibia. Braiding hair is common in many African tribes; the hairstyles are unique to that tribe and are indicative of a person’s age, marital status, wealth, social position, power and religion. However, this isn’t the only example of how braided hairstyles have been used in the African culture to communicate. In Columbia, enslaved Africans arrived in the 16th century brought over by the Spaniards who colonised the area. The braided hairstyles created by the African women during this time helped relay messages between one another. They would create “maps” and signal they were going to escape, they even allowed them to conceal seeds and gold within the hair to survive after escaping. Even beyond communicating with one another, the women who were raped and treated as sexual objects by the slave masters would create hairstyles that were symbols signalling freedom. A lot of Black people continue to wear our hair in these styles to honour our ancestors and connect with our cultures deep history. Knowing that they used these styles as a symbol of hope and survival evokes a connection deep within me when I sit down for my monthly braiding session. The many hours spent weaving my beautiful thick afro into an elaborate braided style is nothing in comparison to the trauma my ancestors were enduring in theirs but I definitely feel connected.
For this reason, I cannot fathom why white people take it upon themselves to be included in this “movement”. These hairstyles promote pride, tradition and freedom from oppression (although in this political climate…girl). It is completely arrogant to take from a culture your own ancestors oppressed, who created a system that you still benefit from, you are all completely wild and have no one to tell you. Every day on social media I am confronted by an image of another white person appropriating my culture by putting it on like a costume just to get some likes. Your fav Culture Vulture Kim Kartrashian is an iconic example of an appropriator; she’s got a track record of not only wearing Black hairstyles but going out of her way to not credit the origins of them. The irony of her having a Black daughter but using Black culture to further her status in popular culture is too much for me, and I won’t even get started on the rest of her family. Her fame hungry antics obviously cause her “looks” to trickle down to normal folk, Kelly from Yorkshire now thinks she’s that bitch after getting 34 likes on her Instagram shot where she’s donning Missguided’s finest yeezy-esque cycle shorts and Kim Kardashian’s “boxer braids”. Except they’re not actually Kim’s braids are they? They’re not even called boxer braids, but most of y’all don’t know that because Kim’s voice (and every other white person’s) is louder and more relevant to white people than the many Black people voicing their outrage on social media. You abuse your privilege when you dismiss us and angrily tweet back “It’s just hair” as your loose braid slips out for the third time that day, but here’s the tea; these “boxer braids” are actually cornrows (hey, Queen Latifah), an already popular Black hairstyle that became the “biggest 2016 hair trend” thanks to Kim Kardashian and every fashion news company that employs zero Black people (y’all are really telling on yourselves). I know some of you are thinking who gives a shit what Kim Kardashian does? You’re right, but we can’t ignore her and other famous people’s popularity and how that affects the mentality of a lot of the people using social media. This constant reporting and crediting to Kim Kardashian and other clueless white people, aids in the erasure of the real history behind them and gives credit to a woman who has never even made an effort to correct this, or generally ever credit her inspirations.
Queen Latifah, I feel you.
Changing the origins of these hairstyles does not begin and finish with someone like Kim Kardashian; as previously mentioned, Black people get suspended from school and denied jobs for the same hairstyles that become “high fashion” on white people (side eye to Marc Jacobs and his nasty pastel felt locs). Magazines and stylists routinely fail Black people by not researching the history associated with the styles they’ve taking “inspo” from in the first place. There’s a constant argument about the origins of locs, and unfortunately due to colonisation and other acts of violence, pinning down an exact date as to when locs were worn in Africa is difficult. From my own research, it is clear that locs have been worn in various cultures to express religious and/or spiritual convictions and connect to Hindu holy men called Sadhus (1800 BC) as well as the priests of the Ethiopian Coptic religion in 500 BC. In the modern day, they are most commonly associated with African & Caribbean culture although the styles and significance can vary from one country to another. For example, Massai warriors have worn locs for hundreds of years are known for their long red locs dyed by root extracts and red ochre, and in Nigeria some children are even born with naturally locked hair and given a special name “Dada“. They have also been linked to Indigenous people of Australia and also in Buddism. In my experience, the most commonly referenced style is inspired from the Rastafari movement. It is said that the locs are symbolic of the Lion of Judah, and their decision to wear their hair in locs were inspired by the Nazarites of the Bible. Reggae music began to gain popularity and infiltrate mainstream charts in the 70’s thanks to musicians like Bob Marley. This cultural influence on the west meant that the locs he wore caused white people to attempt to replicate them, and before long they were a worldwide fashion statement. In the present day, hippies, goths and the like have “adopted” this style to symbolise rejecting government controlled culture. We also see designers using locs and “rasta-style” in their vogue campaigns, typically with white models. Black people make up only tiny percentages of the models in fashion magazines and runways, so if you can’t see how wrong it is to be using their culture as “inspiration” but not actively including them in the project, then only Jesus can help you. Oh and seriously, don’t try to kid yourself thinking that they took inspiration from Buddhists and Indigenous people (although this would be appropriating too so..) judging by current music, almost every fashion trend and even the way people speak, t’s clear that y’all love the hell out of Black culture as long as you don’t have to actually be Black.
White people look so desperate defending their right to wear a hairstyle they know so little about and get so defensive when called out on it. They do the MOST mental backflips trying to rationalise it and look, I get it; most of your heritage is based on the colonisation of other countries so you’re used to getting whatever you want, but it’s 2018 and you need to understand not everything is for you. You can try all you want to message me saying you have locs cos you’re actually Buddhist, but do you even realise that the term “dreadlocks” is thought to originate from the Rastafarian movement as well as it having ties with a slur used by oppressive white people, so guess what – you played yourself and now you look dumb. Also, for the love of god please also do not tell me If you have a genuine religious claim to the practice of locking your hair, then you have no reason to get upset, but if you’re trying something because it looks fun then I hope your hair falls out tomorrow. In spite of this, it’s no secret that white people have the upper hand when it comes to power and privilege in this world; locs and braids being accepted and validated on white people despite the traditions originating from black and other POC culture’s that have been oppressed and marginalised for it is problematic as hell. White people are the first to say culture is meant to be shared but how come I don’t see y’all being an allies and speaking up about economical racial injustice, police brutality or any other racist instances. Whilst you’re whipping your box braids back and forth, black bodies are being policed and killed and you’re no where to be found. To humour it, let’s say culture is meant to be “shared”, then please explain why this happened: our good sis Zendaya was criticised by some boring bitch on E! for wearing faux locs on the red carpet; saying she “…probably smells like weed”, and yet Karlton Jender was called “edgy”, “cool” and it was breaking news when she decided to wear them. You see where I’m going with this? How can we share culture, when the owners of the said culture are disrespected like this. This isn’t a one-off instance, it happens every single day.
JASON MERRITT, GETTY IMAGES
Inevitably some of you are going to come at me with the *whiny voice* “Black people appropriate white culture”, “Black people wear weave and straighten their hair”, “Black people wear blonde hair and put contacts in” blah blah fucking blah, so let’s just get down to it whilst I have the time: some questions for yo asses…
- What is white culture?
- When was the last time having blonde or blue eyes affected your job prospects?
- Are you completely deluded in thinking that only white people can have blonde hair and blue/green eyes?
- Do y’all really believe Black people can’t have naturally straight hair? LOL
- Do you have any idea what the difference between assimilation and appropriation is?
Firstly, White culture is colonising half the world but you still don’t season your food. Secondly, no one is firing or oppressing you for having blonde hair or blue eyes, shut the fuck up. In fact, blonde hair has been observed in Black people for a long time, and it has nothing to do with european invasion. The eye thing, yeah it can be explained by a throwback in the genes from european invasion but hey y’all colonised us, what ya gonna do. (They also may have Waardenberg Syndrome which affects the pigmentation of the eye and hearing, just good to note this). Straight hair is also not unique to white people, and there are plenty of Black people with naturally straight hair – however this may not be what every Black person is thinking when they’re straightening their hair, it certainly wasn’t the causation for me relaxing my hair at 14 years old – which brings me to my next point…
I have early memories of being a child, having to sit on the floor between my mothers legs on a weekend, getting smacked with the comb if I moved too much (my sisters know). I whined and complained about having to have my hair done, I hated it and longed for straighter hair like my white school friends. I used to think their hair was beautiful, and magazines and society told me mine was difficult and “frizzy”. It’s completely ironic to see them now wanting to look like me so badly; they wear afro wigs for fun, and swish their braids around before removing them the next day without a second thought. As a teenager I spent a lot of my mother’s money on relaxing (chemically straightening) my hair and even eventually cutting my afro off into a “manageable” pixie cut. I cry for my younger self now, I wish I could tell teenage Demi how amazing her hair is, how beautiful it looks reaching for the sun and engulfing her face like a lions mane. This desire to obtain more eurocentric features which are the benchmark for beauty standards across the world is exactly the definition of assimilation. I constantly purchased copies of Sugar magazine, Cosmo and others as a young girl and I remember going through hundreds of pages and only seeing 5 Black girls, who were only in the background of adverts. The “how to” hair tutorials were targeted towards sleek caucasian hair and it made me feel so ashamed of my unruly coiled hair. I started attacking my hair with straighteners and forcing it to be something it didn’t want to be. School friends praised me and said it was better than the kinky curls full of product I wore the week before; this validation pushed me to continue this ritual for many years, damaging my hair and in turn my identity. I eventually came out of this “sunken place” and embraced my curls; the world didn’t change overnight, and rocking my fro’ at work had me sent home due to “inappropriate wear of uniform” – do you know how it feels to be told who you are is wrong? do you know how it feels to be made to feel so small and powerless over something you can not control? Hair is just the tip of the iceberg, in many countries colourism is rife; bleaching ones skin is considered a normal part of your beauty regime – and when you live in a country where is white is right – the desire to assimilate whiteness can be all too tempting. Trying to tell me wearing my blonde braids or straightened hair is the same as you telling everyone about your new “boxer braids” is insulting, and pure ignorance. This is no shade at any Black person who chooses to don these styles for fun or otherwise, I live in this world too and my light skin privilege aside I understand.
To conclude, no I don’t find it respectful when people say they’re taking inspiration from a culture as a reason to wear box braids/locs etc, because you can’t just use someones culture for “inspo” without being also responsible and researching it, and within researching it you will find how these same traditions have caused mine and other cultures to be oppressed and discriminated against. These oppressions and discriminations do not apply to you because of your white skin, and so to have this information but do it anyway because you “think they look nice” is being a cunt to the highest degree, and in the words of Kelechi Okafor; may thunder fire you where you stand. I don’t need anyone to message me to say they disagree with what I’ve written today, I don’t live for your validation or to be palatable for you – I don’t need you to agree with the lived experiences of many Black people and myself. However, I hope what I’ve written makes you realise the politics of Black hair and how we navigate the world differently, I hope it inspires you to become more aware and a better ally, because at the end of the day; it is not just hair.
Until next time,
Demi – Colleen x