I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that I’ll be discussing cultural appropriation, and maybe you’ve already tuned out. I get it, you’re not too fond of being told what you can and cannot wear. I’m not either. Society has no dress code. Even still, it’s something you should seriously consider when you’re thinking of getting locs or bantu knots.
If you like this post, you should check out my thoughts on intersectional feminism!
Why Cultural Appropriation is Such A Big Deal to Black Women:
If you just thought something among the lines of “I don’t care! I’m going to wear whatever I want on my head because that’s my right,” you are 100% correct. You might have a bit of a one-track-mind, but you’re still technically right, so I want to make one thing abundantly clear.
I have no interest in dictating how people express themselves.
I am one girl, and my entire political party—or the ones who get the most retweets—don’t represent me. Just because you’ve heard of others wanting people to stop wearing certain hairstyles because it qualifies as “cultural appropriation”, doesn’t mean I do. One of the beautiful parts of living in the United States is that we have these cool things called rights, which means we can do a great amount of things, even if it annoys an entire demographic. I love that, in all honesty. To change that would mean to interfere with the freedoms we are granted as citizens, and to change the meaning of what it is to be American entirely. There are still a few things to consider.
A white person would be perfectly within their rights to wear box braids or bantu knots, or what have you, but a black person is just as within their rights to be offended by it. It might not be right based on your ideas of courtesy, but it is allowed, and even understandable. Here’s why:
My freshman year in high school, I was in the theatre department. It’s one of those things that I’d always enjoyed, but I wasn’t good enough to do in middle school, so I was very eager to be successful in my high school’s program. About halfway through the year, I had my hair in twists, a popular protective style, so I wouldn’t have to worry about taking care of it during my school’s field trip to Chicago. One day after theatre class, the teacher asked if I was planning to eventually lock my hair, a process that starts with twists. I had considered it, but hadn’t made a decision, and I told him exactly that. He asked that if I do, to keep my dreads short, so they can be easily concealed by wigs. The shows we did always had the girls, all of them, with bone straight hair, for “uniformity”, despite the physically diverse cast. He did not give me a “how to be successful in theatre” run down, he specifically requested that I keep my hair short for the benefit of his program.
A few years ago, I was picking up homework for a friend in my neighborhood who was sick that day, meaning I met some teachers I did not know. One of the teachers was in the middle of a conversation with another student when I got to his classroom, so I waited. It turned out he was a sports fanatic, and was talking about one of the recent track meets of our rival school, who we would soon be competing against in volleyball. He mentioned a girl on our team, a black female, and a good friend of mine, and how she should be disqualified from further competition. I had to ask why, as I knew she was a model student, and a great player from what I’d seen at her previous games. He said that her box braids, which she had not worn before that year, would slow her down and she should cut them off or not compete, for reasons of “uniformity”.
Around Valentine’s Day last year, I went to my local hair salon. I usually style my own hair, but I figured that I had a right to spoil myself for the occasion. As Luisa put me under the dryer, I saw a little girl come in the store with her mom. She was crying, but she was around 9, so I didn’t think much of it. When I was that age, I found something new to cry about every five minutes. After about twenty minutes, my drier went off, so I moved to sit in Luisa’s chair, near where the girl and her mother were sitting. After a bit of light conversation, I learned that the girl was in her school’s choir, and the choir director had expressed that she’d like her to have straight hair for all performances for purposes of “uniformity”. The mother, unfortunately, was the non-confrontational type, and was not interested in starting a race war with the teacher, and ultimately decided to just relax her daughter’s hair, as getting a flat iron through 4c hair is not the easiest or the cheapest. The girl had heard horror stories about relaxers and did not want one. After showing her some pictures of me with straight hair, she finally calmed down a bit, which was good, but she never should’ve had to.
These don’t seem like huge problems, but here are three situations of children being told by public educators how they should wear their hair. When I tell these stories to others, they shoot back nonsense about professionalism, which is absolutely something to consider, but not here. A black women should never be told to affect her hair’s natural state in order to be professional. In my 4 years of being natural, do you honestly believe that I’ve never managed to maintain a professional appearance without straightening my hair? As a musician, half of my life is spent in concert black and closed toes shoes and my perfectly puffy professional hair. At which point do you stop preaching professionalism and start to think about why we only deem Eurocentric appearances appropriate for office and performance settings?
But what does “Professionalism” have to do with cultural appropriation?
Imagine growing up with these micro aggressions, growing past actively caring and finally settling into ambivalence, and working a 9 to 5 sweating under your wig cap only to go to the coffee shop and see a white barista getting compliments on her dreadlocks. Imagine watching a young girl tell the story of how her teacher cut off her braid, and then see Kesha’s “Crazy Kid’s” music video. Then, take into account all of the hate and intolerance we get for our natural hairstyles, and then all the shame we get for wearing sew-ins, wigs, relaxers, etc. As someone who lives that life, I can tell you personally, it’s infuriating. To be raised on the notion that the way your hair grows out of your head naturally isn’t acceptable? To have to damage it, cover it, or cut it to be considered acceptable for the office, or the concert, or the date, or the—it goes on and on and on.
This doesn’t just apply to hair either. To really delve into this conversation, we could talk about this generation’s black kids who were teased for having large lips only to have the #kyliejennerlipchallenge pop across their timelines. It really is a never ending conversation, so we’ll limit it to just hair for the time being.
I said it before and I’ll say it again. I have no interest in dictating how others express themselves. I very much want to live in a world where white people wear dreadlocks and nobody cares, but I’d like that right, too.