Can Hair Be Cultural Appropriation?

March 9, 2020

Whether it is on Instagram, T.V., the runway or just everyday life, finding non-black people sporting dreadlocks or cornrows is not unusual. Celebrities like Gigi Hadid, Zac Efron and Kylie Jenner have been accused of cultural appropriation for wearing these hairstyles as caucasian people. Many people think nothing of it as it is ‘just hair’, but there is a deeper problem underneath.

Cornrows, box braids, dreadlocks and afros are a few examples of ethnic hairstyles apart of African culture which can be dated back thousands of years. These hairstyles serve more purposes than just being aesthetically pleasing. The hairstyles are also protective styles, meaning they tuck the ends of the hair in to prevent damage. During ancient times, the styles could also indicate if a woman was married, their age and what region they were from. Later on, when Africans were being enslaved, their captors would shave the hair off of black women’s heads to deny and rid them of their culture. Mary Oriho, an African-American student at Waukee High School, explained, “Back [then,] black people would get tormented and mistreated about their hairstyles and be put into stereotypes that these hairstyles are ‘ghetto’ or ‘wrong’.”  Nowadays in the realm of employment, black women tend to straighten or relax their curls as opposed to styling them, as they are deemed ‘unprofessional’ by many employers.

Cultural appropriation of African hairstyles by non-black people has become somewhat normalized in society. In fact, it also happens right here in Waukee. “I’ve seen many white males wearing durags, and girls wearing very tight cornrows…it’s not made for their hair,” Mary described. Durags are a type of scarf used for kinky to accelerate the development of hairstyles like waves or dreads. Big names like Kim Kardashian and Marc Jacobs have been contributors to using the hairstyles as a ‘trend’ or ‘aesthetic’ without acknowledging the history of the styles.

The issue with non-black people wearing black hairstyles is evident in society today. Although most people can wear their natural or styled hair virtually anywhere they would like to, many black individuals are discriminated against purely because of their hair. In a Texas school, senior Deandre Arnold was suspended for refusing to cut his dreadlocks for graduation as it violated the district’s dress code. His mother later informed the media that his hair had not been an issue before. In Deandre’s Trinidadian culture, “men often wear long dreadlocks in professional and educational settings.”  This type of inequality with hair is why cultural appropriation is such a big deal with African hairstyles. Previously in workplaces, black women have been told their natural hair is ‘unprofessional’. In 2010, a black woman by the name of Chastity Jones was told to get rid of her dreadlocks because they ‘tend to get messy’. When she refused, the company decided to not hire her. Although new laws have been put in place to fight back against discrimination against ethnic hair, it does not erase the struggles African individuals have faced regarding their hair throughout history. 

The fact that non-black people can essentially wear black hairstyles without any of the repercussions, while black people are being oppressed for the same styles originating from their own culture, is the main reason why wearing the styles as a non-black person can be classified as cultural appropriation.

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