Let me tell you about the first time I wore cornrows in school. I tried the tightly braided hairstyle out the summer before middle school, when I spent two weeks riding horses at camp. My mother and I came to the conclusion that there was no way my hair in its current state would fit beneath a riding helmet, especially when I was taking care of it by myself away from home. So I went to the salon for the first time and emerged four hours later, washed, blown and tightly braided. I had a bit of a headache but I was too pleased and amazed by the result to care. My father cried when he saw me.
Those two weeks were amazing. I rode horses and sang cheesy camp songs, all without having to worry about my hair. The braids withstood the humidity, the helmets, and all of the rest of the abuse I put it through. I took the cornrows out when I got home and washed my head thoroughly before going back to my normal, puffy ponytail. I had fun that summer, my new hair style helped with that, but I also felt closer to my cultural heritage. Looking in the mirror at myself in cornrows, I saw a fuzzy image of the grown woman, comfortable in her skin, I could someday become. I felt mature and the dizzying sense of detachment I (still sometimes) feel with regards to my mixed race faded.
I started sixth grade the following fall. My school picture shows me grinning crookedly at the camera, my hair barely contained by a blue bandana. As I became busy with school and friends, my poor hair was condemned to a long year of lapses in responsibility. Unwilling to do too much with it, I kept it pulled back for days at a time. It became a puffy, untamed mass of curls. I fell backwards during a figure skating lesson and I swear my hair cushioned my fall. When my mother offered to take me to the salon again for a professional wash, I readily agreed. I was lucky enough to find a stylist who had a biracial daughter of her own and understood how to work with my finicky hair. After a good conditioning and a soothing head massage, I sat in the chair and nodded when she offered to cornrow my hair. No more brushing for a few weeks? I was in. I felt like an old pro as she positioned my head at various angles and tugged at my bangs. I knew that my friends and classmates would notice my hair, but I figured that would be the end of it.
I walked into school that Monday and a few friends complimented my hair. I savored the change and went about my sixth grade business. My sixth grade business consisted of being a bit of a know-it-all, talking about Star Wars, and geeking out over the anatomy unit we did in science class. So when a boy fell into step beside me that day and commented on how I looked like I should be a rapper, that he “should call me Snoop Dogg or something”, I was confused. I grew up listening to Fleetwood Mac; the only thing I knew that I shared with Snoop Dogg was that he’s black. A kernel of unease settled down deep inside of me, but I ignored it.
In the years since then, I’ve learned how to better take care of my own hair. It has gone through many transformations: cornrows, pigtails, buns, flat ironed almost to death. Two braids or buns have been the easiest: fast and protective. Seven years of the same thing got boring, so this past year, I began to add more braids. I don’t have the skill or dexterity to do my own cornrows, so I make do with sixteen or eighteen small braids with curls at the ends. I like how it looks, something closer to the woman I saw in the mirror all those years ago. I got even more compliments when I began to wear braids in high school from friends, but from teachers and strangers too. And then, seven years after my first experiment with cornrows, I got the Snoop Dogg comment again from a completely different set of white boys. I was also harassed on the street for the first time in my braids, as yet another white guy felt moved to comment on my hair. I have even worried, somewhat guiltily, about how professional I looked when I shadowed at the hospital and wondered if it would affect the outcomes of my job interviews.
The politics and social implications of “ethnic” hairstyles are infuriating and exhausting for women of color. Employers have instituted racist and misogynistic guidelines for women in the workplace. Cornrows, afros, and dreadlocks are discouraged and seen as unprofessional, whether a woman is working in an corporate environment or serving in the army. These “guidelines” force women to change hairstyles or risk losing their jobs. Grown women are not the only ones condemned for expressing themselves. An Oklahoma charter school administration sent a seven year old black girl home when she made the decision to wear dreadlocks. The administration claimed that dreadlocks and other “faddish hairstyles” detracted from the elementary school’s professional atmosphere. These types of expectations also insidiously contribute to a society that values straight, white-emulating hair over hairstyles that have enormous personal, historical, and cultural significance to women of color. As I mentioned before, I sometimes straighten my hair. It is a choice I make for myself and I would never criticize another black woman for doing so. However, I do feel pain and anger at all of the oppressive systems that are in place when little black girls think that you have to have straight hair to be pretty.
The long, bloody history of the policing of black women’s bodies is an ongoing odyssey. It is something we are subjected to daily and cannot escape. As in the past, our society lends its tacit approval to theft and oppression against women of color. People will to great lengths to justify the appropriation and misuse of black culture. Cultural appropriation is when someone adopts attributes of a culture that they have no personal connection to. Often seemingly innocent and resulting from ignorance, cultural appropriation is racism and privilege in action. The act of selecting just one aspect of millions that make a culture beautiful and meaningful, and claiming it as one’s own silences the experiences and history of the actual members of that culture. And when that culture is in some way a minority, as is often the case, appropriation erases the oppression that generations of people have endured. When someone appropriates another culture, they do not carry any of the hardships that the people of that culture have carried.
Cultural appropriation is often mislabeled as “cultural appreciation”. When white women don cornrows or other black hairstyles they do not face the stigma that black women do when they leave home. Their other white aspects protect them from the poison that cornrows might subject a black woman to. On white women, the hairstyle is seen as an accessory, a fashion statement at best. And if these women do feel uncomfortable or unsafe while wearing cornrows? They can take them out and return to society’s ideal version of womanhood. Black women cannot simply change a look and escape from judgement or danger. We have a million other things, from our lips to our dispositions that leave us open for attack, and more than two hundred years of oppression and violence in this country alone to carry on our shoulders.
Look around, you will see cultural appropriation everywhere, from hairstyles and fashion choices, to foods and dances that are suddenly the “next new thing!” despite the fact that they have existed in marginalized communities for years before being “discovered” by white people. Cultural appropriation has become so pervasive in our culture that it’s practically second nature, yet people’s knee-jerk reactions to being called out for appropriation are always very defensive. Take Kylie Jenner this past summer, when she posted a shot of herself in cornrows on her Instagram. Many people praised her new look, and some noted that it was appropriative and insulting. But these comments were made by strangers on a social media platform that reaches millions of users a day. Kylie didn’t bother replying to the usual string of comments her photo received. She did, however, take great offense when Amandla Stenberg, a then sixteen year old actress of color, criticized Kylie for her appropriation and for using her position of privilege for oppression instead of advocacy. Kylie wrote back and dismissed Amandla’s comment, but not before the exchange took the world by storm. People jumped to Kylie’s defense and were quick to denounce Amandla, some even going so far as to accuse her of body policing.
Let me be clear: commenting on an act of racial ignorance is not body or fashion policing. Forcing little girls out of school because of their hair is body policing; forcing women to apply chemicals to their scalps to look more “professional” is body policing; mandates that target the hairstyles of women who are willing to risk their lives for their country is body policing. Defending these women and pointing out Kylie’s privilege was an act of bravery. Amandla undid some of their erasure and refused to be silenced.
I wear my braids proudly. I wear them as an act of rebellion. Sometimes, they are a source of anxiety as I learn to wear them with confidence. They are living history, reminders of sisterhood, proof that we are still here. I can say with grim certainty that I will be subjected to judgement and stigma long into my personal and professional futures. My body, and the bodies of other women of color, will still be seen as public domain. We will still be emulated by one hand and beat down by the other. But the woman I see in the mirror isn’t so fuzzy anymore.
I refuse to let appropriation and ignorance force her back into obscurity.