It's Not "Just Hair." I Promise.
By Ciana Alessi
It is an unfortunate truth that most people (POC, white, or otherwise) will never understand the significance of hair in the black community. What’s worse is that I’m constantly reminded of this truth as I scroll, grimacing, through the comments section under yet another picture of Kim Kardashian’s wearing a historically black, braided hairstyle (This time from MTV’s 2018 VMAs). As per usual, there are spans of lengthy defenses of Kim’s hairstyle -- Fulani braids, in this instance -- that all ring to the tune of “I don’t get it, it’s just hair?” Oh, my dear, naive Instagram user, it’s not quite that simple. To understand the significance of Kim Kardashian’s careless appropriation of historically black hairstyles, one must begrudgingly go back to (white people, stay with me here) … slavery. To make a long history rather short, once slaves were captured and stolen from their land, one of the first steps slave owners took was to cut off enslaved people’s hair, as means of identity erasure and division. White people would then ensure enslaved black people kept their hair wrapped to clearly distinguish themselves from the free. Prior to slavery, the process of braiding one another’s hair in black communities was a means of cultural and social engagement; it was a way to ensure the community’s life itself. Keep this in mind.
Now, when we come back to present day, I can mindlessly scroll through my Instagram explore feed and see at least one non-person of color wearing some sort of braided style, nearly begging for a rebuttal, to which she can cry “it’s just hair!” I can also scroll a little further down and see at least one screen grab from an article about a young black girl who was just kicked out of school for wearing the same braided style Becky is championing on Instagram. (Take your pick of these instances: this one? this one? perhaps this one? ) This almost always happens at schools that have zero tolerance dress codes, and therefore immediately threaten disciplinary action for any dress code infraction. These zero tolerance dress codes are employed in specific instances, which consistently affect black girls at higher levels than other school-aged children. For example, in one of many instances, Mya and Deanna were threatened with suspension if they did not “fix” their hair and take out their braided hairstyles. Their school’s dress code cites “restrictions on hair extensions” as the rationale for punishment -- claiming they are a distraction -- yet, when I went to a predominantly white high school, the many white girls who surely wore hair extensions were never sent home for having them, and I’m sure the thought never crossed their minds. Of course, they needn’t worry, because hair extensions themselves aren’t being policed, the black bodies beneath them are.
When a dress code allows black girls to be sent home confused, embarrassed, and further divided from their peers because of their hair, but is hardly instated on non-POC girls, it is an extension of an institution that intends on portraying a specific image of acceptable blackness and policing all others. In 2018, however, this supposedly unacceptable image of blackness is highly desirable on non-black people. Even if black girls stop getting sent home for wearing their hair in styles that is easiest for them (and because those are the styles they want), or if black people stop being denied jobs for their “unprofessional” hairstyles, black hair will not cease to be politicized because of its inherently political history. African braided hairstyles were, and still are, a form of art and a means of cultivating identity, but they are still being taken off our heads -- now they even claim innocence, naivete -- and we are expected to sit back, silently?
This is why, when Kim Kardashian defends her fulani braids by saying, “I know the origin of where they came from and I'm totally respectful of that. I'm not tone deaf to where I don't get it. I do get it,” I respond: No. You do not get it. Because you can’t respect symbols of black people’s cultural identity while flagrantly using them as fashionable embellishments. Moreover, you surely cannot do so without acknowledging the fact that your race allows you to wear literally any hairstyle without conscious, institutional discipline enacted upon you, a privilege that may not be given to your biracial daughter.
So tell me, dear Instagram user, how is white women’s appropriation of black hairstyles different from the weaponizing of black hair by white slave owners years ago? Is it not a continuation of the historical attack(s) on the black community and our collective sense of identity? I know I can’t speak for you, but I would surely say it is.