Yes, My Hair Is My Culture
Imagine being told your entire life that your hair was something that you should be ashamed of. Then suddenly in your 20s, it was acceptable, because some random celebrity who was was not apart of your culture started wearing hairstyles to mimic the hair your were naturally born with. That is what it is like growing up as a black woman in America. What many Americans do not seem to understand, especially White Americans, is that they have the privilege to wear their hair in any style they want to, without it hindering how they are perceived by others. It is the complete opposite for black women. Your hair dictates your life. Black hair is constantly targeted as something that is “inappropriate” and “unprofessional”. From day one, black women are told and shown that their hair is something that they should hide and be ashamed of, and then when they find ways to make it “more acceptable”–such as wearing wigs, weaves, box braids, etc.–they are still faced with negativity in the form of comments like “ghetto” and “ratchet”.
We live in a very frustrating society in when it comes to culture. America is a melting pot made up of people from all kinds of backgrounds and cultures. It is what makes us such a unique country. However, this in a way is a double edged sword when it comes to pop culture. There is a fine line between appropriation and appreciation that has been created in American media and society. Many may try to turn a blind eye to it and claim that cultural appropriation is “not a thing” but it very much is so. One of the most common instances of cultural appropriation found in American media is the hairstyles of black women. Now I know what some of you are probably thinking. “You can’t claim a hairstyle as a culture”. But the thing is, we can. Let me explain.
The most hated kind of hair type in America is that of a black women. The most derogatory kinds of hairstyles in America are those that are associated with black women. And yet, both of these things are two of the most uncredited “inspirations” in American pop culture. Now, I personally believe this is due to the fact that our hair holds a part of history that is consistently swept under a rug because, like most minorities in America, it has a harsh past that White America wants us to forget. Thus, the hairstyle will be put on the whitest model they can find, renamed, and labeled the “new hottest trend” leading to unintentional backhand comments like “I love your hair! It’s so (insert non-black celebrity name)-esque.” The best example of this would be the Vogue article¹ about how Lupita Nyong’o’s hairstyle for last year’s Met Gala was inspired by Audrey Hepburn when actually is was inspired by that of the hairstyles of various African tribes and Nina Simone². This is a common practice, especially in the fashion world.
For decades now, black women have been routinely told to hide their natural hair. Natural black hair is very unique and unlike any in the world. Not only does it grow naturally curly, it also grows coarsely and upward. Some black people will have more coarse hair than others, some will have more curly.Basically, our hair does not grow straight down and silky like the ideal American standard of beauty. (Keyword: ‘silky’; because, contrary to popular belief, black hair is actually very soft.) To comply with American standards, black women would straighten their hair by any means necessary. For some, something as simple as a straightener would be enough. For others, more drastic and damaging chemical methods were needed. Both methods are harmful and both were meant to hide the natural state of our hair.
For black women, our natural state of hair is an afro, but according to Allure Magazine in 2015, the afro is a “ballsy” style. The significance of the afro dates back to the Civil Rights Movement where the birth of another movement occurred for black culture. Around the 1960’s, Africans began to (willingly) immigrate to America more frequently. With this exposure to African people, American-born black people were finally seeing firsthand the beauty that was their hair. Thus, the first wave of the Natural hair movement was born. Women stopped straightening their hair and started wearing their natural afros. It was a statement of growing comfortable with the hair they were in and as a means of trying to remain connected to the roots that were taken from them. The afro had become so powerful that at one point, women began hiding their afros in public to avoid arrest, as it was seen as a form of protest.¹ Despite it's significance, none of this information was even mentioned when Allure published their article. Sure, the author said it was a “confident style” which, in America, it is; even today, black women wearing afros are considered bold. Imagine that. Being considered bold and confident simply for wearing your hair how it looks naturally. And instead of using a model that, you know, is black and does not have to go through extreme lengths to rock an Afro, they used the article to show white girls how they can be apart of the fun too.
Another black hairstyle that is constantly appropriated is, dreadlocks (better knowns as “locs” amongst black people). Yes, dreadlocks are black culture. I do not care if you are a Bob Marley fan, saw Kylie Jenner do it, or witnessed it during Marc Jacobs’ show for Fashion Week last year. If you are not black and you are wearing dreadlocks, you are appropriating black culture.
Let us start with where the word “dreadlock” comes from. Remember slavery and how the slaves actually got from Africa to America? Let me refresh your memory a little bit: Africans were stored in a boat like sardines with little to no movement and no form of hygiene. Because of that, their hair would grow and knot up. The knots would lock up the hair, making it virtually impossible to run through. The word “dreadlock” was formed because it was a style that originated from a dreadful time in black history.
Let us jump to today with the double standard when it comes to locs being worn by black people. Firstly, black people with locs are automatically assumed to be dirty. This is because of the kind of regimen to maintain them. When black people make the decision to loc their hair, they only need to wash their hair once a month. This is because you need to give the hair time to grow and actually loc together. This, however, does not mean black people with locs have dirty hair. Black people in general do not need to wash their hair that often for it to be clean. Most black people do it once or twice a week or even once every two weeks. Frequent washing can actually damage our hair and dry it out. Our hair produces natural oils that protect it.
Now here is where the double standard comes in: when white people are seen with locs they are not automatically perceived as dirty. They will usually “attractive”, “chill”, “artistic”, “alternative”, or even “goth” for some. In actuality, their hair is significantly dirtier compared to that of a black person with locs. In fact, when you first get locs you are not supposed to touch your hair for the first month more or so, so that the hair can lock. But the difference is black people can go a lot longer without washing their hair than others without it being damaging or even dirty for that matter. Even Zendaya got hate for her locs in the media and they were not even real.
But because she is a black girl, she was ridiculed for probably smelling like weed. Meanwhile, you had Kylie Jenner, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus who all wore faux locs at some point, and were considered “edgy”. Are you noticing a pattern yet? Because I definitely am.
Now there are several accounts of protective styles being appropriated over the years. If you do not know what that is, you have definitely seen these styles on a some random white girl, under a “new name” or considered a “hairspiration”. A protective style is a hairstyle which black people will wear in order to protect their hair. Right now, we are in the second wave of the Natural Hair Movement so many black women are using protective styles to promote natural hair growth. Prior to that, however, most black women would wear these styles as a means of conforming so that they would be taken more seriously not only in their professional lives, but in their daily lives as well. Unfortunately, even with that intent, protective styles are consistently appropriated, and when they are not, black women seen wearing them are easily associated as being “ghetto”.
Protective styles can be with or without hair extensions. Cornrows, two strand twists, and bantu knots are a few examples of protective styles that can be done with and without extensions. Weaves, box braids, marley twists, and goddess braids are the more commonly known styles are the ones that do use hair extensions. All of these styles are great ways which black women use to promote the growth of their hair. Like I mentioned earlier, black hair grows naturally curly. This means black hair also grows slower, especially when it is constantly touched and manipulated. The beauty of protective styles is that it allows black women to grow their hair faster and healthy whilst still looking “presentable” to the rest of the world.
Many non-black celebrities will wear these styles, and pop culture outlets will claim that they are something brand new and will not credit where the styles actually come from. Bantu knots become “mini buns”, goddess braids and cornrows become “boxer braids”, and Senegalese twists will finally be shown on a fashion magazine but only on the whitest girl they can find. What this turns into is black women being accused of finding the inspiration to do styles by non-black celebrities, when it’s really the other way around. But no, we do not know what we are talking about, right?
I think what white America really needs to start understanding is this: when it comes to hair, they have the privilege and the freedom not to be bound by their hair. They need to become aware and accepting that black hair is black culture. They should not deem these hairstyles unacceptable because it is something they literally cannot achieve and should not make them acceptable just because they are under a new name on a white face. The fact that even our military has created standards for black women’s hair (in that they banned protective hairstyles and specifically used mainly black women as visual examples of unacceptable hairstyles) should really put things into perspective.²
It is 2017 you guys. My hair is beautiful. My hair is appropriate. My hair is my culture.