“Well You Straighten Your Hair, So You Must Want To Be A White Girl”

Let’s Talk About Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Assimilation

Recently on Twitter, I ran into a discussion surrounding a photo of a white woman wearing dreadlocks. Many (but not all) people of color began to scrutinize the woman for appropriating their culture. Feelings about it were equally split, but one comment from a black man stood out specifically: “Well you straighten you hair, so you must want to be a white girl”. Let’s break down his problematic “arguement”.

There is a major difference between cultural appropriation and cultural assimilation. Cultural appropriation is the adoption of a culture by those of a different culture. This includes the misinterpretation and misrepresentation of a culture’s symbols, language, clothing, rituals, jewelry, traditions, etc. One of the most common examples being the use of Native American attire as Halloween costumes or at musical festivals. People dress themselves in feathers and face paint without understanding how sacred these elements are to Native culture. Cultural Assimilation is the adoption of an oppressed or non-dominat group’s culture by a dominant group. Dominant groups often adopt elements of culture from the very people they seek to oppress. Examples of this would be a white person dressing up in traditional Mexican attire. Cultural assimilation needs to be a major part of the dialogue when discussing the relationship between white and black women.

Hair is an essential part of identity for black women. Throughout history and still today, black women are told that the hair that grows and coils from the scalp is everything but beautiful. In the workplace, black women are told that their hair is unprofessional. In schools, little black girls are told that their hair is distracting. Black hair is ridiculed in majority public spaces, no matter what natural style it’s in: dreadlocks, braids, twists, afros, etc.

Some black women prefer their hair to appear straight. This can be done by straightening the natural hair, sewing in a weave, wearing a straight wig, etc. People, like the man on Twitter, commonly argue that black women are striving to have more white features. There is no validity of that argument, because it does not criticize how whiteness, especially Eurocentric beauty standards, has systematically become a part of American culture.

In Sara Ahmed’s A phenomenology of whiteness, she explores the idea that whiteness is the standard and shapes the social experience of all. Whiteness acts as a form of public comfort, which explains why cultural assimilation exists. In order to be included and valued in public spaces, oppressed groups subconsciously adopt “white culture”. Black women don’t wake up and decide to straighten their hair to look like white women, but this beauty standard has become what is accepted as professional, civilized, and “not that kind of black”.

Not rocking your natural hair is not about wanting to be white nor is it ONLY about subconsciously giving into beauty standards.

The truth is, black women’s hair will never just be hair.

And white women will never understand that.