Within the past 15 years, cultural appropriation has become a term we can’t avoid hearing. From non-Black celebrities wearing box braids to fashion designers featuring white models in cornrowed, lace front wigs (Allure, Essence), more and more people are adopting aspects of Black culture. This is especially true when it comes to hair. Rarely do those appropriating understand the history behind the hairstyles they co-opt or respect the people who created them. Yet they are given a free pass or considered “high fashion” while Black people, specifically women, are penalized.
• Sign the CROWN Act Petition to encourage more states to ban hair discrimination in workplaces and schools.
• Follow PsychoHairapy, a mental health and hair movement redefining how we look, talk, and care for hair.
• Reflect: Have you experienced hair discrimination before? If not, how would you feel if you were sent home from work because of a hairstyle that has cultural ties to your racial identity?
What exactly is cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is “the adoption or co-opting, usually without acknowledgment, of cultural identity markers associated with or originating in minority communities by people or communities with relatively privileged status” (Dictionary). The term is typically used when Westerners of all races unreflectively adopt aspects of Eastern culture or when non-POC use elements of a marginalized group’s culture to be trendy.
A repeat offender of cultural appropriation is Kim Kardashian West, who has worn Fulani braids on numerous occasions (Teen Vogue) and referred to them as “Bo Derek braids.” Bo Derek, a white woman, wore this hairstyle in the 1979 film “10” (IMDB), and in 1980, People Magazine credited Derek for making them a “cross-cultural craze.” But People Magazine and Bo Derek failed to understand the history behind this hairstyle.
Fulani braids originate from the Fulani or Fula people of West Africa. Hair played a significant role in African culture and society then and was used to identify someone’s social status, religion, age, marital status, and the clan they belonged to (Africa.com). Hairstyles were even passed down from generation to generation.
When African women were brought to America during the slave trade, their heads were shaved to strip them of their identity, humanity, and culture (Essence). Once in the states, the complex, ornate braids they used to wear had to evolve into simple, easy-to-manage styles. These new braids became more functional and even developed a new level of importance.
Enslaved people used their braids as a form of communication to relay messages about freedom without their masters’ knowledge. “People would use braids as a map to freedom,” explained Lori L. Tharps, an associate professor at Temple University and the co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. For example, the number of plaits an enslaved person wore would indicate “how many roads people needed to walk or where to meet someone to escape bondage” (Essence).
“A braid was a sign of unsophistication, a downgrade of [a Black woman’s] image,” Tharps said.
When enslaved people gained their freedom on June 19th, 1865, women started abandoning their braids and cornrows and preferred straightening their hair to appeal to white society’s standards of beauty. For several decades, straightened hair was the norm for Black women in the United States (PBS).
The way Black women viewed their hair changed in the 1960s with the Black Power Movement, which encouraged Black people to embrace their African roots and culture. Over the last 60 years, Black hair has become a symbol of self-love and perseverance, which is why Black people get upset when non-POC wear hairstyles that have deep roots in Africa. It hurts to see non-POC wear hairstyles to be trendy and not for identity or out of necessity. Read Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America to learn more about the history of Black hair.
Why is it harmful?
When non-Black women wear braids and cornrows, they’re unknowingly removing the cultural significance behind them and misrepresenting how people should view Black women when they wear similar hairstyles.
And despite white people culturally appropriating Black hairstyles, Black people themselves are still judged, criticized, and shamed for reclaiming their own cultural identity. Black hair has created harmful stereotypes that have caused people to make inaccurate assumptions about what they deem “acceptable.
Students have been sent home because their hair doesn’t fit into the school’s “hair policy” (CNN). Chasity Jones had a job offer revoked after refusing to get rid of her locs (Teen Vogue). Black children grow up thinking their natural hair will never be enough and that their hair is unruly, unprofessional, and dirty. They’re being reprimanded by school officials while their white counterparts have the freedom to express themselves with their hair. Subconsciously being taught white is better.
Ever since Black people were brought to this country, they’ve been facing discrimination based on aspects of themselves the average white person would never be asked to change. This is why the introduction of the CROWN Act in 2019 was so monumental. This initiative aims to end hair discrimination in a country that continues to rip and ridicule Black people of their cultural identities, urging states to pass laws that make hair discrimination illegal. Currently, 18 states have signed on, including Massachusetts, Nevada, Tennessee, and New York. It’s currently in Senate awaiting a federal decision after passing in the House (Glamour).
“The passage of the CROWN Act in New York State makes a clear statement that we value black people and will not tolerate policies that attack their dignity,” New York Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright, who worked to have the CROWN Act passed in New York, told Teen Vogue. “I hope that young women see this and understand that their hair in its natural state is beautiful and should they choose to wear their hair naturally they should not be subjected to discrimination. I want young women to celebrate their autonomy, self-determination, and natural beauty.”
The 2020 Oscar-winning animated short Hair Love, which features a Black father learning how to style his daughter’s hair, reinvigorated the natural hair movement. Hopefully, this inspires society to embrace natural hair. Natural hair is beautiful, and until Black people can wear their hair how they like, we shouldn’t praise non-Black people for wearing the exact same hairstyles or give them credit for making it “trendy.”
Instead, let’s respect Black hair for its roots in Black and African culture and identity.
• Cultural appropriation is the practice of co-opting cultural identity markers that come from marginalized communities.
• Cultural appropriation of Black hairstyles is especially harmful, considering how many Black people experience hair discrimination to this day.
• Expression of Black hairstyles has deep roots in our history, during and before enslavement in America.
• We must end hair discrimination so that Black people can wear their hair without repercussions.