One of the biggest debates in popular (“pop”) culture remains: Is it considered cultural appropriation if those who are not of African descent wear Black hair styles like box braids, twists, dreads, etc.? My response is yes, and here is why.
Cultural appropriation is largely about power dynamics. Formally, it is interpreted as a dominant culture taking identity characteristics and other portions of another culture for its own. In the case regarding Black hairstyles, what makes matters worse is how industries capitalize and commodify these identities without crediting their origins. As Amanda Stenberg put in her video Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows, “cultural appropriation is when the privileged make it cool, but the original struggle of the culture is not”.
Styles like cornrows and box braids originated from decades of hair maintenance (Stenberg, 2015) starting as far back as 3500 BC to upkeep the diverse textures of natural hair of African descendants, mainly women (Gabbara, 2016). For decades, hair braiding has been a symbolic form of status, age, regionalism, religion, messaging, and much more (2016). Because of all the time and creativity it took to create these styles, they too were seen as social art and today they are mainly associated with African identity (Allen, 2019). New York Times columnist Tamara Best describes braiding as “a rite of passage and a collective experience across the African diaspora” in her article Black Women and Braids: Images Align Their History. Identity may be subjective, but it matters in this context. From the early into the late 2000’s, Blackness began to rise in pop culture, being associated with edginess and “urban style” (Stenberg, 2015). Regardless of the overall growing acceptance of certain variables of Black culture, the negative power dynamics persisted, for example, the reference Stenberg makes regarding Iggy Azalea using Black culture as a persona but not fighting for Black rights. Celebrities like the Kardashians mainstreamed these “urban styles” and eventually the general population mirrored these trends (2015). This phenomenon in combination with the commodification of Black culture and the origin of the braid being denied its credit created the cultural appropriation cocktail we are witnessing today. It reminds me of Stuart Hall’s description of Intertextuality which seems to create a game of broken telephone through text and imagery. In this case, the game of broken telephone is an ongoing reference to something that no one seems to formally know about or even cares to cite correctly, yet seeks to reap the rewards and the awe.
If you are still not convinced, let us go back to power dynamics. To this day, in North America, Black hair is still being policed. The natural hair of Black people for decades has been considered ‘unprofessional’ unless it is straightened or ‘undistracting’. Marcus Shute, a 35 year old Black lawyer in Nashville stated: “through[out] undergrad/law school and in my professional career I was told I would not be successful as an attorney if I didn’t cut my locs,” (TSR, 2018). Mind you, there have also been stories in recent years of Black high school students being suspended for wearing braids because they do not “comply with the school dress code” (Taketa, 2020). I do not believe this has been an issue for any other race in modern day North America (besides say governments in the recent past making Indigenous people cut their hair, but that is another story in itself). Yes, you could say White males may be discriminated against in the workplace based on their hair being too long, but this type of discrimination disproportionately affects Black people. The overall difference is, regardless of what hair texture or style a Black person wears, it continues to be policed in 2020 by institutions, media, and peer groups. For Black people, their natural hair is not a choice - short or long - and it is a part of an identity along with a large range of hairstyles.
Rapper and influencer Bhad Bhabie - notorious for what many would consider as blatant cultural appropriation - was ostracized by commentators (or who she would call “haters”) for wearing box braids as a White woman. Bhad Bhabie raised a valid point (which I do not condone): “Y’all hair ain’t meant to be straight but y’all glue the whole wigs on to your head...which isn’t anything like your natur[al] hair texture at all and I don’t say a God damn thing...” (Duribe, 2019). Again, it comes down to power dynamics. In referring to the policing of Black hair, it must be mentioned that some cannot get a job without “westernizing” their hairstyles. There are generations upon generations of Black people, particularly women, who have been pushed, persuaded, and told by pop culture that their hair does not meet society’s beauty standards, creating the dichotomy of “Good Hair” and “Bad Hair”. If good hair means silky and straight, does bad hair mean kinks and coils? The extensive and expensive hair culture of Black people that is so highly recognizable in our world today has been a form of adapting to colonial pressures.
Personally, I believe the only way to stop the cultural appropriation of Black hairstyles is simply to stop appropriating them. I believe as an act of solidarity, those who are not connected to the history should stop wearing these styles as a show of respect. I know this is not an ideal reality to those who want to keep up with the trends, so I do have an alternative view on a halfway point. For celebrities, I believe they should not respond to callouts the way Bhad Bhabie has in the past, but instead actively listen to the complaints being made and to educate themselves. If at this point they still feel the need to wear these hairstyles, the least they could do is use their platforms to inform fans of the origins of the style, and most importantly to show support to Black communities and social movements. If gatekeepers of pop culture defended Black 4 communities and their struggles as much as they ignored or defended how they ‘are not appropriating a culture’, this would be a step in the right direction.
A great example of someone who used their platform to educate their audience is a South Korean YouTube sensation known as “xoxosophia” (Dahir & Onibaba, 2019). Sophia was called out for cultural appropriation in 2019 for doing a hair tutorial on box braids that she referred to as “reggae hair” (2019). Her response was ideal. She admitted to her ignorance regarding the name of the hairstyle and its history (2019). She then proceeded by educating herself and later responding to her audience (2019). Her response was a YouTube video of her taking out her box braids while explaining what cultural appropriation was, she gave viewers a history lesson on the style, and summarized why it is important to respect this history (2019). Since this day, she has not attempted Black hairstyles, what I perceive as a form of solidarity.
To conclude, wearing Black hairstyles to perpetuate trends and capitalist purposes is cultural appropriation. Gatekeepers must do more and be held accountable when intensifying the division of power dynamics where one group benefits while the other’s objective reality is commodified and policed. With more awareness and acts of solidarity, to paraphrase Stenberg, the world might love Black people as much as they love Black culture.