As much as I love the pool, growing up I always dreaded swimming. Because of my thick kinky hair, a field trip to the pool meant that my mom was going to spend hours detangling and braiding my hair. After a long night of tenderheaded complaints, I was always dissatisfied with the end results. The cornrows were short and boyish, making me look like an awkward version of rapper Ludacris in the early 2000s. Instead of looking forward to a fun field trip, I was worried that my peers would think my hairstyle was ghetto. Without fully understanding the reason why my Black style was being shamed, even at that young age I knew that the White celebrities I admired wouldn’t be caught dead in cornrows.
Imagine my surprise when I saw Kim Kardashian wearing the straight backs that I was once embarrassed to wear. Now repackaged as “boxer braids,” the fashion world was obsessed with the edgy new trend. However the only thing new about this style is that White women finally discovered it. Black women had been mocked for their natural hair for years. Protective styles and natural hair are often considered unruly, unprofessional, militant, and low class. Often when White women bring it in into mainstream culture, it suddenly becomes socially acceptable.
Cultural appropriation can seem harmless. Since America is supposed to be a melting pot, it’s easy to see how cultural exchanges can occur. However, when it comes to the appropriation of Black features, thick lips, big booties, and natural hair styles are only deemed hip by the media when White celebrities start doing it.
Who could forget Kylie Jenner telling Marie Claire that she “started wigs, and now everyone is wearing wigs”? Black women have been wearing wigs to protect their natural hair for decades. Yet Kylie took ownership of this trend without acknowledging the historical context behind wigs. What about The Supremes’ glamorous Motown wigs or Lil Kim’s funky colored hair pieces?
Along with lace fronts, Jenner has worn other typically Black hairstyles including a yaki textured pony tail and dreadlocks on the cover of Teen Vogue. Magazines and blogs loved her edgy, boho-chic look. However when Zendaya Coleman, a teenage singer, wore the dreads to the Oscars earlier that year, she was met with criticism. Fashion Police’s Giuliana Rancic said she feels like, “she smells like patchouli oil or weed.” Rancic eventually issued an apology for her remarks.
Justin Bieber also just shaved off his dread locks a few weeks ago after many accused him of cultural appropriation. Rather than apologizing, in a video he said he wasn’t trying to be Black and simplified the issue by saying, “It’s just my hair.”
Unlike Justin Bieber, as a Black woman, my natural hair is more than “just my hair.” It’s something I had to learn to love after years of seeing White women with flowing blonde hair on the covers of magazines. For me, rocking my curls shows that I love myself and want to keep my hair as healthy as possible. This is an idea that someone with White privilege could never understand. It’s not about being edgy; it’s about making a statement against White beauty standards. When White Americans appropriate these hairstyles without considering the cultural context behind it, it cheapens the message behind my personal journey to self-acceptance.
Cultural appropriation allows White celebrities to pick and choose what part of Black culture is fun and trendy. They get to adopt Black swag without experiencing racial discrimination or social inequality. At the end of the day, White Americans can unbraid their hair, wash off their spray tans, and still live a life of white privilege.
Natural hair is a part of my identity, and it’s appalling that White celebrities to belittle this experience as just a trend.
Jerica Deck is an intern in the Baltimore office of the AFRO American. She is a student at Hampton University.