California Gov. Gavin Newsom has officially signed the Crown Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) into law banning employers and schools from discriminating against natural hair.
Yes, a law was passed that made the hair that naturally grows from Black people’s heads legal.
According to beauty brand Dove, who has been the Crown Act’s biggest supporter, Black women are 50% more likely to be sent home from work because of their hairstyle. And they’re 80% more likely to change their hair by straightening or relaxing it so they can be more accepted by their peers at work.
It sucks that our hair has been judged so much that we needed a law to protect us from discrimination. But maybe white people who wear traditional Black hairstyles will finally realize that their “it’s just hair” argument is completely invalid.
A lot of the braiding hairstyles that you see now on Black people can be traced back to Africa where hairstyles were used to let people know someone’s tribe, social status, or background.
Once in America, laws were passed to control how we wore our hair. In Louisiana, Tignon laws forced Black and mixed women to cover their hair because they were attracting too much attention from white men. Black women followed the law and they adorned their head wraps with jewelry and made sure the wraps had vibrant colors.
Considering the history of discrimination against Black hair in America, it’s hurtful to see our hairstyles considered to be “fashionable” on white women — especially when they are still seen as “ghetto” on us. The same society that made us feel like we needed to conform to Eurocentric standards of beauty now wears our hairstyles without a second thought. And it’s a slap in the face.
One of the most notorious examples of the appropriation of our hairstyles is Bo Derek’s hair in the 1979 movie 10. The media had a field day when Derek appeared in her infamous scene and the Fulani braids/cornrows that she wore soon became known as Bo Derek braids. In 2014, a Los Angeles Times article ignorantly gave Bo credit for starting the cornrow trend. Actresses like Cara Delevigne, Kristin Stewart and Rita Ora were named for continuing the trend. They didn’t even mention a single one of the many Black celebrities who wear their hair in the same style.
The article then interviewed white hairstylist Jon Reyman who just straight-up insulted Black people. He said,
“Moving away from urban, hip-hop to more chic and edgy. I have also been incorporating cornrows into center parts and side parts.”
We all know that “urban” is a not-so-secret code word for “Black.” Reyman basically said that cornrows are becoming less Black and more elegant and cool — in other words, white.
But, it’s the Jenner/Kardashians who have been the biggest perpetrators of Columbusing Black hair. It’s almost like appropriation is their “thing.”
In 2015, Kylie Jenner graced the cover of Teen Vogue with long black loc extensions. Her look in the photo shoot was called “edgy”. And yet that same exact year, Zendaya also wore her hair in locs (which were beautiful) and Fashion Police host Giuliana Rancic had the audacity to say that she probably “smells like patchouli oil” or weed. Zendaya soon took to her Instagram to call out her racist comments and wrote,
“There is already harsh criticism of African American hair in society without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair.”
A few months later, in July, Kylie snapped a selfie in which she donned cornrows and the caption “I woke up like disss.”
“When u appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards ur wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter.”
Kylie responded back, completely missing Stenberg’s entire point, “Mad if I don’t. Mad if I do.. Go hang w Jaden [Smith] or something.”
Of course, the cultural appropriation hasn’t ended there. In 2016, fashion designer Marc Jacobs came under fire for appropriating Black hairstyles, specifically locs, for his 2017 NYFW runway show.
When Black women called him out on the double standards they face when they wear dreads, Jacobs tried to play the color-blind card and said,
“All who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race or skin color wearing their hair in any particular style or manner — funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair. I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race — I see people.”
I know what you’re thinking, Marc Jacobs is right, what about Black women who straighten their hair or get weaves? That’s cultural appropriation too.
No, it’s not. The word you’re looking for here is “assimilation”.
Assimilation is when a minority group takes on traits of the dominant group as a means of survival. White or American culture is dominant in the US; it’s the default. Laws like the Crown Act highlight the fact that Black people needed to assimilate to a Eurocentric form of beauty and that meant straightening our hair. If we didn’t have to assimilate, there wouldn’t be a law protecting us from discrimination.
To white women, our hairstyles are just that, hairstyles. But to us, it’s a personal journey.
For Black people, our hair is political, it’s a symbolic middle finger to the face of white supremacy. The debate on whether or not white people should be “allowed” to wear traditional black hairstyles is never-ending.
Listen, you’re free to wear whatever you want. But instead of dismissing our annoyances and frustrations as trivial when we see a white person wearing a traditionally Black hairstyle, it’s important to take the time to understand the cultural significance of our hair. Because when we criticize white women for wearing our hairstyles, we’re not doing it for the hell of it.
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Alysia Stevenson is a twenty-seven New York City transplant currently living in Florida with her boyfriend and three furbabies. When she’s not writing, you can find her watching beauty tutorials on Youtube or Parks and Rec for the millionth time.