There have been several newsworthy photos of white women wearing traditionally black hairstyles that have made it to the media in the past several years. The most recent of these is Kylie Jenner of the Kardashian clan posting a photo to Instagram of her in cornrows, shown below:
The picture sparked a media outcry and claims of cultural appropriation that echo the larger feeling of discontent with white women wearing black hairstyles. In one criticism, found here, the problem with Jenner’s actions is pinpointed as the fact that she is “using her fame to call attention to her hair, which mimics Black culture, but not to the racist violence taking Black lives”. Actress Amandla Stenberg was one of the first to voice her opinion on social media about Jenner’s hair asking “Do female black lives matter, too?” Jenner’s actions are especially noteworthy, as the article notes, simply because she is famous, but the defenses of other stars stating that she is just one girls who made a mistake draw attention to the fact that it is, of course, not appropriate for anyone, famous or not to appropriate black hairstyles.
The argument that Jenner was failing to call attention to the racist violence taking Black lives adds a new dimension to the way that we think about cultural appropriation in the United States. In previous posts we have written about the way that any action that aims to mimic or even celebrate a culture (most recently the Chinese-themed Met Gala) is at risk of flagrant cultural appropriation or at best the use of tired stereotypes. The same could be said of the fashion of many cultures that designers take without consideration of or claim to their historical origins. Yet despite the less than desirable crossing of cultural lines typified by events like the botched Met Gala, it is unlikely that the same criticism would be raised about not acknowledging the racist violence that has taken so many Chinese lives, though America has certainly had more than it’s share of that as well. The unique brand of criticism leveled against people perceived to be appropriating black culture thus points to this type of appropriation holding a unique position in the world of cross-cultural boundaries that exists within the United States.
The major issue with white women appropriating black hairstyles is that they are praised for wearing their hair in a new and creative way, while most black women are shamed. White women wearing black hairstyles are a slap in the face to black women because they are ignorant to the history of these hairstyles.
“There are so many reasons why it’s not okay for white women to rock styles traditionally worn by black women, including Afros, braids (no, not French braids, calm down), dreadlocks, and baby hairs. Black hair is not just hair. There’s history and context tied to these styles that cannot be ignored, a historical legacy forever linked to the ongoing cultural remnants of slavery and institutional racism”
Dismissing the cultural significance of these hairstyles is allowing white women to wear these hairstyles without the stigma of being black or having “nappy hair”. What is unfair to black women is that they are criticized for their hair in the work place and in academia, but when they try to conform to hairstyles deemed “beautiful” by white culture they are accused of appropriation, when in reality black women conform to white beauty ideals in order to survive and avoid criticism explained here.
Some black authors have turned against criticisms of Jenner’s choice, saying simply that “politicizing the issue of hair is wrong” as seen in the article posted here, and while it is valid for one to feel that they should not have exclusive rights to a style traditionally worn by people of their race, especially in a world where “mixing, matching and borrowing are fundamental elements of fashion worldwide”, there is an element about appropriation of black culture in the United States specifically that doesn’t ring true about appropriation of other cultures (even though appropriation of other cultures is still obviously unacceptable and needs to be addressed). In reality it would seem that appropriation of black culture in the United States falls into it’s own category because people that appropriate hairstyles like Jenner did are taking on privileges in fashion while not bearing the burden of racism that peers of a different skin color have to in the present day. This direct comparison leads to a particular indignity directed at those who claim about their style choices that it is “just hair”.
Jodi & Eleah