White Women Wearing Black Hairstyles Is Never Okay
Black hair is not “just hair”.
Megan Barton Hanson from Love Island
I have seen so many white women wearing black hairstyles this week that I’m starting to think I’m hallucinating. This week was also the first time in years that I got braids myself. You can read all about my natural hair journey and life long hair hatred in my “Why The Natural Hair Movement Needs To Be About So Much More Than Hair” article. Getting braids was symbolic to me- a step closer to self-love, to embracing my heritage and culture, and just general self-care because braiding acts as a protective style that will allow me to handle my hair less which means it can grow in peace.There are so many reasons that black women get braids but one of them is necessity. When my hair is long and natural it can take hours to wash, condition and style it. Braiding it saves me hours of hard work.
So, I booked an appointment with a hair braider months in advance and was looking forward to it every day leading up. I was also excited about being able to support a black woman business. I was looking forward to the whole process in general. Doing black hair usually takes hours and it was traditionally a time to socialize with other black women.
When I arrived at the braider’s house I discovered she was white. And wearing box braids. I cringed internally but felt too awkward to say anything. Why did I have to be the one to tell her how disrespectful her hairstyle was? She had her four-year-old daughter with her and I didn’t want to cause a scene, so I let her do my hair. She got the colour, length, and style wrong, and she frequently complained that her hands hurt whilst braiding my hair. The braids were badly done and only lasted 4 days on my head. Not only was I livid about wasting my money on terrible braids, I was also deeply hurt that she could take this hairstyle and wear it so shamelessly even though black women were punished for it regularly if they did the same thing. Wearing braids was just a hairstyle to her- it meant nothing. She effectively stripped the style of it’s deep spiritual and cultural meaning. Wearing braids won’t make her look “more black”, she won’t experience racism for it and she won’t be forced not to take a job because of it. It’s just a costume she can put on and take off at will. It’s a slap in the face to see white women wear these styles so easily. I have had to unlearn so much self-hatred to even want to wear braids; and I’ve also had to decide to stop assimilating to do so.
It took some courage for me to get braids done. I have spent my life coveting sleek, straight hair and using harmful relaxers and straighteners to try to achieve the impossible. When my hair is straight I’m perceived as more beautiful and I’m also racially ambiguous, which allows me to move through the world largely unnoticed and experiencing no racism. When my hair is braided or curly I am no longer assimilating; I’m obviously mixed race, and it affects the way I’m treated in the world. Black women with braids are routinely discriminated against- many employers outright ban black hairstyles and black natural hair, saying that it’s unprofessional. Some workplaces even force black women to get chemical relaxers in order to work.
“For so many, many years we were told that only white people were beautiful. Only straight hair, light eyes, light skin was beautiful and so black women would try everything they could to straighten their hair and lighten their skin to look as much like white women. This has changed because black people are aware and white people are aware of it too because white people now want “natural" wigs, they want wigs like this” — Kathleen Cleaver
Hairstyles and hair grooming were important parts of life in African tribes and could identify someone’s age, marital status and religion among many other things. When Europeans began kidnapping Africans and forcing them to be slaves they shaved their heads as a way to rid them of their pride, identity and culture. This was considered an unspeakable crime to many tribes because hair was viewed as sacred.
In the 1700s Tignon laws were introduced in Louisiana. This meant that all black and biracial women had to cover their hair. The reason? Black women had been attracting the attention of men and white women weren’t happy about it.
Black people have literally not been able to wear their natural hair and natural hair styles for so many years that now wearing these styles is an act of revolution in itself. There’s so much history behind black hair, so much pain. Black women have been bleaching their skin and straightening their hair for years to try to be closer to whitness, and suddenly now that the natural hair movement is gaining traction white women want to hop on board too. Some people seem to think that wearing black hairstyles is appreciation rather than appropriation but I disagree completely. If you appreciated a culture you wouldn’t steal such sacred things from them and claim them for your own. Most white women who wear black hairstyles do not know the deep history behind the style and usually don’t speak up about race issues. It’s just a cheap way for them to feel “exotic” or “quirky and unique”.
It seems like now that I’m finally embracing my natural hair; after years of wishing I had straight, blonde hair- women with straight, blonde hair want to have hair like mine. Only without the struggle. Without the years of self-hate and internalised racism. Without the unlearning and pain.
Kim Kardashian famously wore cornrows and called them “boxer braids” prompting many other white women to do the same. Black culture is continually erased and that is exactly what you’re doing as a white woman wearing a black hairstyle. Maybe you’re thinking “but it’s just a hairstyle, no one owns it and we’re all human”. I agree that we are all human and in a perfect world there would be no concept of race, and we could all share hairstyles and cultures and no one would be treated differently because of it. But sadly that is not the way it is. Black women wearing their traditional hairstyles are often seen as unprofessional and “ghetto” but white women are seen as fashionable and setting some kind of trend.
The erasure of black people’s culture is deeply rooted and just because slavery has ended doesn’t mean its effects still aren’t felt. My own last name is a slave owner’s name, we will never know our real family name. I don’t know where my ancestors are truly from and maybe I never will. Black people still bleach their skin, straighten their hair and participate in colourism. The wounds go deep and they are passed down from generation to generation.
Black women embracing their natural hair and hairystles is a way of taking back their culture and pride. If you truly want to be an ally to black women then do not appropriate their hairstyles- appreciate them from afar.
Watch “Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows”: https://youtu.be/O1KJRRSB_XA
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