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It Will Always be More than Just a Hairstyle

I think it’s safe to say that all my pieces are written from very personal places. They’re inspired by conversations or experiences that I at least think are worth documenting. So here’s this one. I recently had a conversation with an old friend about why it’s inappropriate for non-black people to wear box braids. Any point I made was immediately rendered redundant. She constantly insisted that black culture should be shared and I’m “not the only one with a culture”, so as part of this “snowflake generation” I shouldn't gatekeep it. But then she said “it’s just a hairstyle” and that’s when it all made sense.


As long as people continue to regard black hair as “just hairstyles”, no argument I make will change their level of ignorance because they are unable to comprehend that culture can’t be reduced down to “just a hairstyle” when it’s so much more complex than that. The conversation came to a swift end after I was accused of attacking and disrespecting her. But she did raise something very important here. And that is that when black women are involved in this nature of debate, we’re expected to remain calm and collected regardless of the subject matter. We’re not allowed to express any form of negative emotion, due to the fear of being labelled as the 'angry black woman' stereotype. Growing up my mum always told me, and I know many other black girls have had this conversation with their mothers, that we’re not afforded the luxury of being overtly passionate. If I check someone’s clear lack of education, I risk creating a negative image not just for myself, but black women as a collective. So as a black woman who constantly finds myself in predominantly non-black spaces, I’m used to presenting well articulated arguments, saturated with facts and figures just to be taken seriously. But the truth is, my arguments don’t come from those facts and figures, nor do they come from books and podcasts, they come from lived experiences and accounts passed down through generations. And every now and again, I conform to the negative stereotype because the topic hits a little too close to home. So for the sake of an old friend and anyone else seeking education, here I am, constructing that well spoken, well formed argument on why my hair will always be more than just a hairstyle.


Simply put, braiding began in Africa. Originally with the Himba people of Namibia who had been braiding hair for centuries and in Egypt with Afro box braids, often styled in chin-length bobs. Historians have been able to date this back to at least 3500 BC. Obviously, we weren't always using synthetic hair, tribes would use oil and thick layers of finely chopped tree bark to create these hairstyles. Braids were a symbol of an individual's tribe, age, wealth, marital status, religion and power. And, more recently than we ever care to admit, canerows were used in the Caribbean to create maps of escape routes in the hair, allowing slaves to flee plantations. Black hairstyles have continuously been transformed throughout centuries and today, no matter how far we are from our roots, the culture still runs deep. Different styles of braiding have appeared all around the world; the Greeks were responsible for the halo braid in the first century, Europe with crown braids in 1066 and Native Americans first created the famous pigtail braids in the fifth century. But commonly appropriated hairstyles ranging from box braids, to canerows, locs, twists and dreads all found their start and still remain in black culture; created as a way to protect black hair from the humidity, heat damage and manipulation. In her interview for Byrdie, hair stylist Alysa Pace described these braids as “not just a style: this craft is a form of art” and this is an art that had been passed down from children learning techniques from the elders in 3500BC, to me, sitting on the floor between my mum’s legs getting my hair braided for hours.


As black women we are taught that our hair is an extension of us and our heritage. I will always be in awe when I see a black woman chop off or shave their hair because it’s like saying 'f*ck you' to the society that has brainwashed us into believing that our hair needs to be long and straight to be beautiful, and a culture where there is so much pressure to have “good hair.” Throughout history, black women have tried to make themselves more palatable for a world that has deemed our natural state ugly. After the abolition and slavery and the creation of segregation in the UK and US, hot combing was a popular form of control for natural black hair: becoming an ideal white image was believed to create better social and economic prospects. And whilst it was hot combing that allowed Madam C. J. Walker to become the first (black) female self-made millionaire, it, in turn, created the unhealthy relationships that black women have formed with their hair. We straightened out the curls and ironed out the kinks because we had to. Then, as the Black Panther movement emerged in the 60s, we began reclaiming our natural hair. This not only included the afro which was a symbol of the movement, but other styles such as box braids, dreads and locs. It was a way of reclaiming the heritage that was stolen from us.


Unfortunately, today black hair is still defined by non-black beauty standards. There continues to be this negative stigma around black hair on a black body because it’s viewed as abnormal until someone non-black makes it beautiful. The stereotypes surrounding black hair are nothing but a continuation of racist, colonial beliefs. As a black woman my braids are too “ratchet” and my natural hair is too “improper.” When I wear a weave or a wig it’s because I’m “bald-headed” or I’m “trying to be white.” But when I cut my hair, misogynoir decides I’m “masculine.” When a black man wears dreads, he’s “unkempt.” When he has braids or wears a durag he’s a “thug” and a “criminal.” Black people have lost jobs over their hair being “unprofessional.” Black students have been expelled from school or forced to cut their locs and take out their braids because it’s “distracting.” Children as young as nursery age have been refused entry from their school of choice on account of their hair being too “big.” The Halo Collective is one of many initiatives created to end hair discrimination in the UK. They established the Halo Code which places of work and education can adopt, affirming that they recognise and celebrate afro hair in all of its styles and glory. They’ve had big signs such as Dove and New Look, but there’s still so much more to be done and many more conversations to be had around the idea of cultural appropriation.   


The discussion is more complex than just “white girls can’t wear box braids.” Often when black people comment on cultural appropriation, many non-black people perceive this as us simply saying “you can’t do that/wear that/say that.”  But this is a systemic issue that is a result of an imbalanced power dynamic in society. Maisha Z. Johnson at Everyday Feminism beautifully defined cultural appropriation as “the power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” In other words, the oppressor takes from the oppressed, claiming they just want to show appreciation whilst simultaneously exercising prejudicial views and discriminative behaviour towards that group. This game has been repeated throughout history: the story of jazz began with white musicians in New York until historians corrected this narrative, giving credit to the black New Orleanian creators. In the same way, Elvis Presley became the “King of Rock n’ Roll” after taking his sound from black artists such as Chuck Berry, the pioneer of that genre. When black culture is taken without credit, it stunts the community’s ability to make the profit themselves and rise from the situation the oppressor has imposed. It rewards creativity unfairly and allows the wrong people to dominate spaces that are already lacking in diversity. When Marc Jacobs was criticized for having his non-black models walk the runway in dreadlocks, it was because the modelling industry is infamously racist and colourist, so it was ironic how he was “appreciating” black culture without actively employing black models. It’s almost a mockery. So when black culture is exploited with little understanding or care, there are socioeconomic impacts, as well as emotional. Non-black people are constantly being praised for things that come naturally to black people or that we’ve been doing for years. Let’s not forget that big lips, big bums and big thighs were once unattractive. Why? Because they were on black bodies and defied the western beauty standards. But the Kardashian clan decided they liked the look and now Kylie Jenner is a billionaire because she created a kit that replicates my auntie’s “monkey lips.”  Doctors routinely make thousands upon thousands from manufacturing the body that my mum spent years trying to rid of because she was told her naturally curvy hips and big bum was “unattractive.”  Dark skin is unappealing but a tan is desirable. The frustration around non-black people, women in particular, taking from black women was never just a surface act. It stems from a much deeper anger that nothing will ever be good enough about me simply because I am black.


If you still don’t understand that this was never just a conversation about hair but rather the inequality that cultural appropriation maintains, then I don’t know what more I can do. Until these inequalities are fixed, your attempt at recreating my hairstyles just because you like the way they look will never be a cultural exchange nor cultural appreciation, but cultural exploitation. But at the end of the day it’s not my responsibility or any other black woman’s duty to educate you. I have spent a lifetime having the same conversations. It is exhausting. Emotionally, mentally and physically exhausting. Equip yourself with this knowledge and then I’ll be more than happy to have a discussion with you. But for a future word of advice, if you ever find yourself in a situation where a black woman is talking about her oppression, you shut and listen.


Look, ultimately, we’re not gatekeeping black hair. No one can tell you what to do. Get those box braids darling. And when your hair falls out, I can give you the number of a really good stylist.


Words By: Sharnel Wiggins

Edited By: Dasha Pitts-Yushchenko 

I'm a first year undergrad currently studying Psychology. I stopped writing for a while but Lockdown helped me realise that I love to put words to the emotions we all feel so here I am: trying my best to produce something relatable.
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