I remember watching TV cross-legged on the floor, held captive between my mom’s thighs, I remember her mercilessly yanking the comb through my tight coils. I remember all the cartoons that I burned through as I memorized the pattern on the burgundy rug as she attempted to conquer my mane. I remember crying in the bathtub, blindly reaching for a washcloth as shampoo dripped from my unruly strands, burning my eyes. As a child I did not wash my hair everyday—this came as something of a shock to my white friends—and on the days that I did, it was an excruciating ordeal. My mother who has a substantially finer grade of hair than mine was thoroughly overwhelmed.
Growing up in a predominantly white community, my hair has always been a source of intrigue, a phenomenon that was reignited the first time a local friend braided my hair into cornrows. Normally, my curls shrank in their natural state, but once pulled tightly into a series of tiny braids, my hair looked much longer. “Did you get extensions?” Was the resounding question in the elementary school halls that day.
I wore cornrows when I went to sleepaway camp. They protected my fragile strands from the elements and my arms from hours of labor. I felt different not being able to wash my hair everyday or flip around soft flowing locks with every passing gust of wind, but I also felt relieved.
Straightening combs, then flat irons and then relaxers were all a welcome saving grace from the exhausting hair saga that my mother and I had endured for years.
I relaxed (chemically straightened) my hair because it undoubtedly made my daily routine much easier, but also because straight hair or at least “tamed hair” (soft structured curls maybe, but never sky-high coils) equated pretty. I am willing to admit that. I was proud of who I was but I was tired of feeling alien, there is a difference between being a unique individual and being an oddity. I was tired of constantly being berated with inquiries ranging from curiosity to contempt. So I gave in to my exhaustion and I gave in to the idea that had been scorched into my head by the world around me of what beauty was. I was 13 and I wanted to be pretty.
While they may seem like innocent strings of braids, cornrows often find themselves in the midst of controversy. When they recently adorned the head of one of the Kardashian-Jenner empire’s youngest moguls there were immediate cries of cultural appropriation. The backlash at her attempt at edginess was heard around the world wide web. In the comments of articles or conversations related to the dispute there was one common counterargument, a retort shouted with a smug “gotcha!” attitude. And it went a little something like this:
“Yeah well, what about black girls and Asians that dye their hair blonde? What about when black girls get weaves or straighten their hair? THAT’S cultural appropriation too!”
No, it isn’t.
Cornrows are culture and while straight, blonde hair is certainly all well and good, it does not have the historical or cultural connotations that cornrows do.
Cornrows and dreadlocks are often deemed unclean, ungroomed and unsuitable for the workplace. They aren’t seen as appropriate for many formal settings. Black hair in any form of its natural state is not considered preened and professional like smooth straight hair. You most likely won’t see a black girl with kinky, curly, or cornrowed hair gracing the cover of Vogue. Yet when a (white) fashionista or celebrity wants to try something “new,” something with a sort of grungy chicness, suddenly braids are cool and acceptable.
The dominant culture simply cannot experience cultural appropriation. It is marginalized groups that feel the sting of oppression and insult conflated with often thoughtless adoption of aspects of their beloved culture. It isn’t cultural exchange; its exploitation.
No one is told that their naturally straight hair may jeopardize their job prospects. They have no trouble finding exemplary figures of beauty that look like them. White women aren’t ostracized for their appearance, pressured to change the traits that come naturally to them. They have never been made to feel like they need to have an afro or plait their hair to be beautiful and accepted. They don’t see their features or traditions mocked and insulted but then adopted. There is no parallel.
I am not telling anyone how not to style their hair, but I am asking that aspects of black history and culture not be selectively plucked from their contexts while so many other parts of the black experience are abandoned or ignored. I am asking that desirable elements of a culture not be snatched up with little regard for their roots. It isn’t about exclusivity and refusal to “share” as has so often been the self-victimizing rebuttal to cultural appropriation accusations. It is a cry for sensitivity and a comprehensive understanding, it is a longing for respect for all of the elements—the seemingly trivial and the clearly colossal—that are sacred to a group. It is a hope for an embrace that is not choosy and discriminatory, but that genuinely attempts to understand.
While I am now much more comfortable with my texture and I admire the vibrancy and life in full natural hair, it will take some reflection, time and serious (patient) tending to my tresses for me to take on the commitment of transitioning my hair back to its natural state.
They might seem like useless strands, dead cells even, but hair is more meaningful than your scissor-happy hairdresser might want to admit. When I was younger it contributed to my sense of belonging, comfort and otherness, but it was also hours of bonding and chatting by my mother’s warmth (even if it felt like she was out to murder my scalp). Hair can mean culture and history and connectedness, but it also puts into perspective the aspects of a culture that are selectively embraced and the deeper ones that are overlooked.