Cultural appropriation is never taken as seriously as it needs to be. I can run down the list of grimy celebrities to anger POC for their thievery, but the latest to fall into fire for stealing from minorities is fashion designer Marc Jacobs. During his New York Fashion Week set, he decided to send his models down the runway with multicolored dreadlocks. Being that all but three of the models were white, many called foul on counts of blatant cultural appropriation.
In an attempt to redeem himself, Jacobs cracked his knuckles and took to his Instagram comments for a clap back:
“And all who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race or skin color wearing their hair in a particular style or manner—funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair. I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race—I see people. I’m sorry to read that so many people are so narrow-minded…Love is the answer. Appreciation of all and inspiration from anywhere is a beautiful thing. Think about it.”
It’s the typical fauxpology, the one that totally ignores the grievances people of color are trying to bring up. It’s the typical “I don’t see color” statement, one that totally ignores that racism still exists and won’t go away by condoning it. But without going too far into those rants, let’s talk about the question that harbors in the white mind: If a Black person can straighten their hair and install weaves, why can’t I put dreads/cornrows/braids in mine?
Well, my poorly educated and slightly ignorant friend, I am here to explain.
Unlike straight hair, which is genetically based and not particular to white people, cornrows, braids, and dreadlocks (say what you want about the Celts, but it’s not the same thing) are tied to cultural practices that were created by Black people and significantly tied to Africa. Hair patterns commemorated displays of social statuses, spiritual connections, tribal affiliations, and an overall aesthetic that could be created due to the unique versatility of our hair textures. These styles were worn with pride. In addition, these hairstyles are used to keep our hair textures—which is often times thicker and less silky—unknotted, neat, and tidy.
The erasure of this cultural significance spans back to the Atlantic Slave Trade and the beginnings of slavery. Upon arrival to the Americas, Europeans would shave the heads of enslaved Africans. The kinks and coils of our hair conflicted with white beauty standards, and became synonymous to unsightly and downright ugly. The removal of our hair symbolized a removal of Black culture.
After over two centuries of enslavement, a large amount of Black people began to follow the school of thought that adapting to Eurocentric standards of beauty would elevate them to a higher level of socioeconomic status.
Black people were conditioned to believe that having tinted skin and thick hair was something to be ashamed of, as encouraged by the preferential treatment of those who were mixed-race with more white features.
Straight hair became the mantra of pretty hair. Straightening hair became a way to blend in with the crowd that makes you stand out like a sore thumb. This behavior is not to be confused with cultural appropriation. When Black women get weaves and straighten their hair, besides it being easier to manage, it’s often a form of Western cultural assimilation. We are constantly reminded that our natural hair is undesirable, unprofessional, and ultimately unacceptable.
Negative connotations about these styles still plague the Black community today. Just recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a company that rescinded a Black woman’s job position because they deemed her dreadlocks liable to get messy, thus against company policy. This is only one of the many cases where a Black person was denied an occupation for the natural way their hair grows. This is why we have such a problem with white people mimicking our stylings without the same repercussions and simply ignoring the privilege that entails.
“While our nation has made great strides, people of color continue to be marginalized in just about every space we inhabit. Our hair can still keep us out of jobs, our names can limit our opportunities, and our skin color makes us vulnerable to profiling.”
— Britini Danielle, Teen Vogue
While Justin Bieber could one day decide to tease his hair and call them dreads because “being weird is fun” and “it’s only hair,” South African students at Pretoria Girls’ High School were protesting for the right to do the same. As much of a role she plays in media, Zendaya was not saved from racist critiques. She wore dreads on the red carpet of the Oscars and was told she looked as though she smelled like weed and patchouli oil. When Kylie decided to wear dreads, cornrow her hair, and rock a Yaki ponytail to a Fashion Week event earlier this year, she dodged criticism, was praised, and received the defense of “she’s just trying to figure things out.” (Thank you, Justin.)
The double standard that exists today is disgusting. Despite these public figures being called out by some, each and every one of them has received a vast amount of appraisal they did not deserve. Contrary to popular belief, these people are not artsy trend-setters. These “new” styles have existed amongst Black people for decades, but we have been penalized for what we created. Living a serene and successful life often comes with sacrifices, and for too long Black people have had to compromise a part of their identity in order to fit in.
What Marc Jacobs tried to do in his response was alleviate the blame from his shoulders and mouth off at Black women about an experience he knew nothing about. But there is no parallel. No, white people cannot say anything about how a Black person styles their hair. Until white women are ostracized for their natural features and appearances, don’t turn the tables and talk about “reverse cultural appropriation” or whatever you decide to call it.