I’ve spent a large portion of my life waging war against my hair.
It’s a nightmare. My hair is curly and frizzy. Not loose lustrous curls – small, tightly coiled kinky curls.
I grew up being told I had “Black hair.” It was not meant in a pejorative way. I was a white girl in a black housing project. It was just a way to characterize the texture of my hair. Black people told me it was “nappy.”
White people made fun of me and called me “Nigger knots.”
When I was a little girl, every morning was devoted to the taming of this fuzzy tangled mess. For one hour, I stood at the sink, my legs cramping, holding back tears as the the heavy brush banged against my head.
My mother slathered my curls in Dax, and Ultra Sheen, relentlessly pulling and stretching my hair into submission. Finally she would wind it into two long, waxy pigtails
I longed for bone-straight, parted in the middle, 70’s hair. Laurie Partridge hair. My mother was less concerned with the Partridge Family and more concerned that I not run around with a wild mass of frizz jutting out of my head.
By the time I was 8, she was straightening my hair with chemical relaxers. They were foul-smelling products which stung my eyes and nasal passages. The lye dripped onto my neck and burnt my tender skin. But they straightened my hair.
In between chemical processing there were searing hot metal combs used to press and flatten my hair into surrender. They straightened my hair, and burnt it – as well as accidentally burning my ears and scalp too many times to count.
Curly hair is labor-intensive. It must be wet down and restored every day; at least, my curl pattern (3C) did.
I didn’t have the time or patience to wear my hair curly every day. When I got older, I no longer had to suffer drugstore lye and scalp burns. I went to black hair salons in Bedford Stuyvesant, where they knew how to deal with my hair.
Today, I still relax my hair. I use organic keratin and go to white people salons in the suburbs.
The last time I let my hair go curly I was pregnant with Little Dude.
I didn’t want chemicals being absorbed through my blood stream, so I let my curls run wild. Pregnancy gave me the best hair I ever had. It was the only time my curls were thick and smooth.
When I was a girl, to keep my hair neat during the summer while giving it a break from harsh chemicals, I got my hair done up in braids. Cornrows.
This is a habit that has stayed with me, on and off, into adulthood.
The ladies who work at the African braiding salons on 126th street in Manhattan work magic. But getting your hair done in braids? Sheer torture.
First, they press and pull on your hair until you’re in tears. Then they begin braiding, and you feel like you’re going to die in that chair. Imagine sitting for 7 hours with your neck turned different ways. And they pull your hair so tight you get a horrific headache. It’s part of getting cornrows. That headache.
I recently found out that these days, if I braid my hair? I am “appropriating a culture.”
Evidently, African Americans are tired of white people adopting black culture – music, hair, style of dress, speech – and neglecting to raise awareness for black issues. It’s not right to take the fun, hip part of being black and leave the bad parts behind. That’s considered “racial appropriation.”
I REJECT THIS.
If white people dress, make music and wear our hair to emulate African Americans, are we not paying homage to them? When did it become offensive to celebrate the aspects of a culture?
Kylie Jenner started a shade war when she posted a sexified picture on Instagram in corn rows and low slung sweats. The disingenuous caption to the photo was “I woke up like disss.”
Is Kylie Jenner an asshole? Absolutely. But not for her cultural misappropriation. She’s an asshole because she was born into a family of assholes who make their livings being assholes.
Amandla Stenberg, the 16-year-old actress from The Hunger Games, decided to call her out by commenting on the photo:
“when u appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards ur wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter “
I REJECT THIS.
I reject the idea that in order to embrace and celebrate black culture, people are obligated to direct attention towards police brutality and racism. And how does it help anything to publicly chastise Kylie Jenner in front of millions, to humiliate her in an attempt to expose her as racist? It doesn’t.
IT JUST DEEPENS THE DIVIDE.
Cultural appropriation occurs when ignorant white people pick and choose what part of the black experience to adopt into their lives, while simultaneously invalidating the challenges faced by black women who will never have access to white privilege.
We partake of a culture for fashion, all the while purposely disinterested in the adversity faced by that culture.
I REJECT THIS.
I resent the gross generalization that because I am white and choose to braid my hair, that I am unaware of race issues. To declare that by borrowing from a culture, we are, by definition, ignorant of that culture’s historical struggles, is ludicrous. That kind of stock characterization of white philistinism propagates racism and distrust. It invites ridicule; in essence, it’s wearing “white face.”
According to the black community, the history connected to these styles, the context in which they were created, is essential to wearing them. These styles are the contemporary remnants of slavery. A white person who wears these styles cares nothing for that context and turns black hair styles into travesty, empty fashion, mocking the black race.
In fact, by wearing these styles white people are systematically breaking down the rich history of black culture, and continuing to exploit the black race just as slavery and segregation did.
I REJECT THIS.
I am TIRED of being blamed for past generations’ idiocy. If, by association, I am guilty of the crimes of a system by being part of the system, then we are all guilty. Which renders the concept of guilt meaningless.
Stop blaming me for oppression and hate I had nothing to do with.
I just want to get my braids done.
Does anyone really believe that the majority of young black girls getting braided up on 126th street have a CLUE about the historical context of the cornrows?
I am sadly aware that African-American women have been made to alter their appearances to maintain their jobs and their respectability. Many have been forced to give up natural black hair styles in what can only be described as an attempt to force them to adopt a “whiter” look.
This is heinous.
But now, if I put my hair in cornrows, I am accused of using my “white privilege” to exploit black culture’s historical symbols to satisfy my shallow need for self-expression.
I REJECT THIS.
I should be free to wear my hair however I choose. I cannot change what has happened in the past. I can only fight for a better future. I know that even today, black skin still acts as a mark of negative difference. On many fronts, black America is in crisis.
But restricting MY personal freedom is not going to address racism and economic injustice. Cultural appropriation is just another way to create discord between races.
Am I only allowed to adopt the hairstyles or music genres, of my ancestors? If I am allowed beyond my own heritage, who draws the line, and where is it drawn? Can I enjoy the films of Spike Lee? The music of Miles Davis?
Culture is not black and white. Like many things, it lives in the gray area. It’s borrowed, repurposed, and reformed over and over again. Exchange of culture creates empathy, and tolerance. It’s what makes up the richly woven tapestry of our lives.
I refuse to view my enjoyment of other cultures through the lens of appropriation. If that makes me part of the problem – then so be it. Fling your accusations at me because of my white girl braids.
I’ll be over here, celebrating the beauty of cultural exchange by dancing through life to the music of cultures from all over the world.
Should white people wear cornrows? How do you feel about cultural appropriation?
Does that include doing yoga? Talk to me. I’m listening.