Bantu knots, Fulani braids, and cornrows are just some of the African hairstyles that have been around for centuries.
But thanks to fashion magazines, Marc Jacobs fashion shows, and the Kardashians, these hairstyles that hold a cultural significance to black people have become quite popular with people outside of the black community over the years. You know what that means, right?
We’re going to have the cultural appropriation talk again.
Cultural Appropriation and Hair
The topic of cultural appropriation comes up often these days, but it’s a discussion that needs to be had, especially when it comes to the topic of white people wearing black hairstyles. Yes, some white people just take the hairstyles and act like it’s some cool new trend, and purposefully ignore the concerns of black people.
But here’s the thing: not every white person who wears black hairstyles has ill intentions. They probably saw a “how to style mini-buns” article in a magazine and thought it was cute, unaware that the proper term is Bantu knots, named after a large ethnic group in Subsaharan Africa.
And that’s the biggest problem.
Magazines and white celebrities who co-opt black hairstyles never give credit where credit’s due. It’s just another “cool” hairstyle to them.
More often than not, they take traditional hairstyles and rename them. Ghana braids or cornrows become “boxer braids” — I’m looking at you Kim Kardashian — and Fulani braids become “Bo braids”, named after 70s it-girl Bo Derek. By taking these styles and not giving credit to the originator, they are literally erasing black hair culture.
The Politicization of Black Hair
From the moment black people were forcibly brought to North America and the Caribbean, our hair has been politicized. There was even a time when we legally had to cover our hair. With the growing number of anti-hair discrimination bills that are being passed throughout the country, the issue isn’t that you’re wearing our hairstyles.
It’s the fact that Zendaya wore locs at the 2015 Academy Awards and received comments like, “she smells like patchouli,” and yet Kylie Jenner wore locs on the cover of Teen Vogue the very same year and it was deemed trendy. It’s the fact that you’re wearing the hairstyles that are called “ghetto” and “unprofessional” on us but are suddenly fashionable and cool on you.
What to Do If You Want to Wear Braided Hairstyles
While no one can tell you how you should wear your hair, take the time to ask yourself this question: “Have I ever appropriated black hair?”
In short, if you’ve ever worn any of the styles mentioned, then yes, you have. But, it’s not the end of the world. Obviously, no one can stop you from wearing your hair how you want, so, if you still want to wear a braided hairstyle, there are steps you can take before making your way to the salon.
First, educate yourself.
Many braided hairstyles have cultural significance, so make sure you educate yourself on the style you’re getting.
Fulani braids, for example, come from the Fula people and it’s common for Fula women to add beads or cowrie shells to the braids. According to Africa.com, the beads aren’t just for aesthetics, they hold a special significance. The website explains,
“Young girls attach their family’s silver coins and amber on their braids as a heritage symbol.”
Also, make sure you’re ready for the maintenance of a braided style. For many black women, we wear our in braids as a protective style. Since our hair is kinkier, it has more grip than straight hair. So, don’t be surprised if you’re style doesn’t have the same longevity as someone with natural hair.
Next, go to a black hairstylist.
I’m not saying white people can’t do intricate braiding hairstyles. But, if you’re going to get your hair done in a traditionally black style, why not go to a black stylist? For many black women, a salon is a place of community and it may sound silly, but they’re sacred spaces to us. Not only will you be getting your hair done by someone with years of experience, but, you’ll be putting money back into the community.
Third, make sure you know the proper terminology — and you use it.
This is super important, especially since mainstream media loves to ignore the cultural significance of these hairstyles. Crediting the inspiration for your new style is going to make a world of difference.
So instead of going on Instagram and calling your new hairstyle “boxer braids”, use the proper term “cornrows” instead. The sharing of cultures is inevitable, but make sure you’re not ignoring the culture or customs of a certain group when doing so.
Lastly, be prepared for the criticism.
Criticism is inevitable, but it’s important to not get defensive. Be ready for an open dialogue and most importantly, listen. Remember, it’s more than just hair for us and cultural appropriation has many layers. The sooner you understand that the sooner we can start moving forward.
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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.