On Cornrows, The Fashion Industry, And Cultural Appropriation

Here's the reality: when the dominant culture picks up pieces of our world, we get fetishized or, even worse, erased.
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Here's the reality: when the dominant culture picks up pieces of our world, we get fetishized or, even worse, erased.

If you’re awake, you may have noticed some “new” hairstyles popping up in the fashion world. DKNY models wore their baby hairs laid during New York Fashion Week; Marie Claire tweeted about Kendall Jenner’s "bold braids," which were actually partial cornrows; and exactly zero black women were mentioned in an LA Times article that referenced cornrows no less than 10 times. 

See, the fashion and beauty worlds have a long and messy history of appropriating bits and pieces of black and Latina style (and physicality), but never modeling them on black or brown bodies. Think full lips, big booties, and yes, baby hairs and cornrows. Historically, all of these are physical traits or beauty traditions maintained by black and Latina women. 

And who does the media highlight when covering these "trends"? Angelina Jolie, Iggy Azalea, Kendall Jenner, and Bo Derek, who hasn’t worn cornrows since the '70s. 

I mean, Miley Cyrus is literally bouncing around in a big prosthetic butt, continuing the tradition of cutting and pasting black features onto white women to sanitize them and make them acceptable.

That hurts us. That makes us angry.

braided ponytail

More pissed off than I look.

I understand the argument that they are only trying to admire and honor our culture. But here's the reality: when the dominant culture picks up pieces of our world, we get fetishized or, even worse, erased in the process. (More about this from Lauren next week.)

There are ways to explore other cultures respectfully. (I think Danielle did a lovely job with her piece on headwraps.) However, hiring “urban fabulous” white models is not one of them. I’ve been encouraged over the past few weeks to see women of color standing up to say, “Enough is enough. We’re tired. This is ours.”

The Answer To The "What Is The Harm?" Question

On the wave of the black-hair-as-white-fashion trend, I decided to take back something that was mine--something I didn't even know I wanted. Growing up in a mostly white area, I just wanted to fit in. I was often one of the only kids of color in my small Catholic school. 

Seriously, one jerk in high school used to call me “number six,” because that’s how many black kids there were in school. And he had numbered us all. 

In grade school, my mom would beg me to let her cornrow my hair. I never let her, for fear of how much more it would make me stick out from my classmates. I’m deeply regretful of how much of my childhood I spent hiding from my heritage and trying to just look like any other white girl.

Last weekend, though, I visited my mom and asked her to cornrow my hair. I’m biracial, so although I am black, my hair is fine in texture, like a white woman’s (which I also am), so that affects how black hairstyles look in my hair.

As my mom carefully braided my hair, we talked about the challenges black women face in the beauty world. From seeing black hairstyles deemed inappropriate for the military, or for schools, to struggling to find our shades in cosmetics aisles, we bonded over a shared experience we hadn’t spoken of before. A simple beauty ritual helped me to understand my mom, and our shared heritage, in a whole new light. 

She cornrowed only one side of my part (a whole head takes a long time), but when I looked in the mirror I was connected--through a hairstyle--to my mother. And to my mother’s mother. And to generations of beautiful black women who passed that hairstyle on to their daughters as a unique expression of their beauty, history, and culture.

braided hair

Proud to look like my mama. Photo credit to my dad, who said I reminded him of Alicia Keyes.

So when anyone, whether it’s a major publication or your friend’s cousin’s Twitter, refers to historically black hairstyles as a “new trend” elevated in status only when worn by white women, THAT is what they erase. That’s another little girl who will only come to understand her beauty 23 years too late. That’s another woman of color who feels rejected and ignored. We can do better.

braided hair

#blackgirlbeauty

What’s your take on the appropriation of black hair in the fashion industry? What questions do you have about what’s OK and what’s not in this multicultural world? No judgment. Let’s talk!