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Zuri loves her natural hair and all of the amazing things she can do with it!

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Follow her throughout history and around the world as she learns about the beauty and versatility of natural hairstyles in What Are You Gonna Do with that Hair? 

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Why braiding matters

Braiding school in Senegal

Honing my braiding skills in Senegal

Ten years ago, I embarked on a journey to learn about the practice of hair braiding around the world. Why? Because, at the time, I noticed that even though hair braiding, in its various forms, was (and has always been) a universal styling technique in various cultures, people seemed to have a negative view of African stylized braiding; and I wanted to know why.

I’ve always loved braids, both wearing them and doing them.  To me, hair braiding is an artform, and I couldn’t understand why people have had a problem with it (and I still don’t know why).  So, I wanted to help people acknowledge the beauty and significance of hair braiding, not only to persons of African descent but to humans all around the globe; I really wanted people to recognize the value of hair braiding as a human practice.

Also, at the time I wrote my Watson project proposal, most of my girlfriends from college and many other Black women I knew had never been taught how to braid– and in many cases, they had no real desire or a need to learn- since, for the most part, they wore their hair straight. So, what this meant was that the practice of stylized braiding, a long-standing tradition in Black culture, was no longer being passed down from mothers to daughters.

Braiding O.N.'s hairThankfully, things were slowly starting to change: more and more women were beginning to return to their natural state.  As a result, braids (which, for a long time, had been reserved simply for the maintenance of little girls’ hair) began to be considered as an appropriate styling choice again.  Even so, many women were still not learning how to braid themselves, or teaching their daughters, for that matter.

Ten years later, that trend toward “going natural” has turned into a movement; and with the Natural Hair Movement now in full effect, I believe the art of braiding has become all the more important.

Spelman Naturalistas

10 years later, and we’re all natural!

Though I don’t expect for anyone to be as crazy about braids as I am, here are a few reasons why I think braiding matters (and why you should learn and also teach your children):

Braiding facilitates day-to-day maintenance and manageability

  • shrinkageBraiding can help stretch your hair if you’re experiencing shrinkage.
  • Braiding your hair into sections can make the washing, conditioning, and moisturizing processes easier, especially if your hair is thick.
  • When your hair is braided, it is easier to oil your scalp.
  • Once your hair is braided, you spend less time on a day-to-day basis doing your hair.
  • Being able to even just plait your hair before you go to bed at night can make a world of difference between having a manageable head of hair or having to spend time detangling your matted tresses the next day.
  • Braiding can be used to create heat-free crimps (also known as a braid-out).

Braids can help with the transitioning process

  • If you’re going natural, and are not ready to go the full nine yards yet by doing a big chop, wearing properly-installed extension braids can help during the process of growing out your hair (which can be a particularly frustrating time, in terms of styling, since your hair is two different textures at the same time).

Extension Braids (front)Extension braids (back)

Braids serve as great protective styles (provided they are done properly and are well taken care of)

  • Braids (which also serve as the basis of many protective styles, such as crochet braids and weaves) are great for protecting your mane from the wear-and-tear of constant manipulation; friction from your clothing, pillowcases, etc; and the elements.
  • Make sure you don’t braid your hair too tight, or leave your braids in for too long, otherwise you could do more damage than good to your hair and/or scalp. (Click the following link for Protective Styling Do’s and Don’ts tips from London Ivy ProductsProtective Styling ebooklet)

Ancient Egyptian braidsBraids connect us to and are a celebration of our African roots

  • Since the time of the Ancient Egyptians, braiding has been an important cultural and hair maintenance practice throughout the entire African continent.
  • Stylized braiding serves as a cultural souvenir of our African heritage, and is one of the main practices that survived the Middle Passage.
  • By learning how to braid and teaching your children how to braid, you would be carrying on a treasured ancient African tradition.

Braiding and bondingBraiding is bonding

  • Braiding creates bonds between the braider and the person whose hair is being braided- whether it be stylist/client, parent/child, between sisters or friends, etc- given the amount of time such styles may take and the conversations which take place.
  • The act of braiding is very intimate: when someone allows you to braid her hair, she is inviting you into her personal space and trusting that you will handle her hair with some TLC.
  • Braiding your own hair allows for deeper interaction and a better understanding of your tresses.

Braids are beautiful!

  • Braided styles are art: they are essentially hair sculptures!
  • Braiding highlights and displays the unique properties and beauty of textured hair; it’s a styling technique where your kinks and curls work to your advantage!
  • There’s nothing like a well-designed, neat braid-up to make you stand out from the crowd!

Natural Updo

Do you know how to braid? If not, would you like to learn?

The Summer of the Natural Updo

headbackLabour Day has come and gone, which means that my favourite season of the year is now pretty much over…sigh!  It’s been quite the summer though: my hubby and I have attended six weddings so far (and we still have one more on deck for October!)

My old go-to wedding updo

Out of those six weddings, I was a bridesmaid in three of them; so, you know, my hair had to be on point! And nothing says “wedding hair” to me more than an elegant updo.  There was a time when that “elegance” meant having to blow my hair out, flat-ironing it as straight as possible, and slicking my fancy bun, wrap, or roll back using a hard-bristled brush and (what would feel like) half a jar of EcoStyler® gel to make sure that it would stay sleek; and then hoping and praying that on the wedding day that (a) it wouldn’t be humid, (b) it wouldn’t rain, or (c) I wouldn’t sweat my style out during the outdoor photos…or while turning up on the dance floor at the reception.

Thanks to the Natural Hair Movement, however, textured updos are now more acceptable than ever (to the point where I was even in a wedding this year where the bride only wanted to see textured styles on her bridesmaids! Never thought I’d live to see the day!)

Natural bridesmaids - Gen's Wedding

All naturalista bridesmaids!

Although we’ve come a long way, I still found myself asking the brides if they were okay with me wearing cornrowed styles in their weddings—even though I think that braids are just as beautiful as the next style, I know that not everyone feels that way.  Needless to say, the brides this year approved of my textured style choices; so it turned out to be “the summer of the natural updo” for me, courtesy of none other than my hairdresser sister, Sarah Anderson of Sarah Naomi’s Hair Care & Beauty.

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Check out Sarah’s masterpieces on social media: @iamsarahnaomi

Here’s a snapshot of what my summer wedding hair looked like:

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Sarah & Me - Gen's Wedding Sarah & Me - Gen's Wedding #2

20150801_172401 imagejpeg_3 efua's wedding

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 What about you? Would you wear a natural updo to a wedding or some other formal event?

Are cornrowed or textured styles “elegant enough”, or is straightened hair the way to go?

Kylie Jenner cornrows and Bo Derek braids: when White women wear “Black” hairstyles

White Woman - Cornrows

 

In case you missed it, earlier this month, Kylie Jenner (Keeping Up with the Kardashians) and Amandla Stenberg (Rue from Hunger Games) got into it on Instagram after Ms. Jenner posted a photo of herself wearing cornrows, captioned “I woke up like disss”.  Ms. Stenberg called Ms. Jenner out for cultural appropriation, and further condemned her for using her celebrity platform to emulate Black culture rather than use her voice to support the Black cause:

“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,” posted Ms. Stenberg.

When I first heard about the incident, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it because I didn’t know all of the details (and still don’t).  In my opinion, cultural appropriation is not a light accusation to make, specifically because it suggests racist motives behind a person’s behaviour.  Furthermore, I believe that cultural appropriation depends on the context of the situation.

In the case of Ms. Jenner, at first glance, it seemed like she just wanted to try out something new with her hair, and, like the author of this recent article in The Guardian, I don’t see anything wrong with that.  However, by using the caption, “I woke up like disss”, not to mention posting a video tutorial the day before on how to wrap your hair at night, I can see how Ms. Stenberg may have felt like this youngest member of the Kardashian clan was making a mockery of Black hair practices, rather than genuinely celebrating them. But it all depends on Ms. Jenner’s motives; and it’s up to her to shed light on them.

On a wider scale, however, this incident has raised an important question, in light of the Natural Hair Movement and the resulting increase in awareness and acceptance of Black hairstyles:

Is it cultural appropriation when a White woman wears cornrows?   

For me, when it comes to assessing whether wearing a braided hairstyle constitutes cultural appropriation, I would have to ask myself the following questions:

1) Are the braids being worn simply as a styling choice; or is the wearer playing “dress-up”, and, in essence, mocking the Black experience?

2) Does the wearer recognize the political and/or historical connotations of her hairstyle choice? And does she even care?

 

Are the braids simply a styling choice; or is the wearer  playing “dress-up”, and, in essence, mocking the Black experience?

I personally don’t believe that there is anything wrong with people from non-Black cultures wearing braided hairstyles (i.e. braids, cornrows, locks, bantu knots, etc.) Why? Because hair braiding is a human practice—not a “Black” one—braids have been worn by people of all ethnicities for thousands of years, and is therefore not specific to African people or those of African descent.

Through my Watson Fellowship research project, “Braiding: Traditional Art, Esthetic Service or Cultural Expression?” as well as subsequent research, I discovered that people in all societies around the world have braided their hair for various reasons: whether cultural, spiritual, political, historical, or practical reasons, as well as purely aesthetic reasons.

This is precisely why I believe that braided hairstyles should not be frowned upon in society, but rather be recognized as a human art form.

As we know, due to historical, practical and political reasons, what I call “stylized braiding” (i.e. braids, cornrows, locks, bantu knots, etc.) has become synonymous with Black culture. That being said, I think it would be unfair to say that anytime a White person decides to wear a braided style that s/he is trying to appropriate Black culture.  If that were the case, many of us, Black or otherwise, would also be guilty of appropriating Native American/Aboriginal culture when we choose to wear our hair in mohawks, fro-hawks, and faux-hawks, for instance.

I believe that the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange really boils down to the context of and the impetus for the style choice.  As Ms. Stenberg, herself, eloquently pointed out in her video commentary, “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows”, the line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is often blurred.   And I think when it comes to hair, in particular, it’s not so black-and-white (pun intended), since no one can really claim ownership per se of styling techniques.

So, if a White woman gets cornrows because she wants to change her hairstyle, or because she thinks they look good, or because she wants to keep her hair off of her face—why not? Now, if she’s decides to wear cornrows because she’s trying to be “down” with Black culture, or trying to “look Black”, and is, in essence making fun of the Black experience, that’s a different story–I think that’s where it becomes appropriation.

 

Does the wearer recognize the political and/or historical connotations of her hairstyle choice? Does she even care?

I know some of you are probably wondering why this question is even relevant, thinking to yourself, “What’s the big deal? Aren’t cornrows just a hairstyle?” In a more perfect world, yes, cornrows would just be a hairdo.  Sadly, in the world we live in, it’s not just a hairdo for Black people.

Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. ~Amandla Stenberg

Since stylized braiding is so prevalent in African/Black culture, society views them as a “Black” practice; and since Black hair (as an extension of Black bodies) is politicized, so are “Black” hairstyles.  As a result, hairdos like cornrows are not simply a styling option for Black people: rather they have become politicized symbols of “Blackness”, whether we like it or not. For this reason, when a White person wears a “Black” hairstyle, like cornrows, and does so flippantly, it is viewed as appropriation, and is thus offensive, because when a Black person wears the same hairstyle, it comes with an imposed societal burden.

That being said, is it cultural appropriation when a White woman wears cornrows?  Not always.

Does wearing a Black hairstyle mean that one must support Black causes. I would have to disagree with Ms. Stenberg, here. Just because someone chooses to wear a Black style doesn’t necessarily mean that they should also be an advocate for Black people–even if the wearer understands the connotations of the style itself doesn’t mean that they have an understanding of what it means to Black.  However, I do think that when one engages in cultural exchange, such as wearing an “ethnic” hairstyle or “ethnic” clothing, one should at least demonstrate an appreciation and respect of the culture from which you are borrowing.

 

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is the age-old double standard: when White women wear braided styles, they can make light of it; yet, more often than not, Black women do not enjoy that same luxury.

And things haven’t changed much.  The negative reaction to the ease with which Kylie Jenner can wear her cornrows is reminiscent of the sentiments that Black people felt in the 70s when cornrows became acceptable only after Bo Derek (a White actress) wore them in the movie “10”…when Black people had been wearing them for centuries!

When a White woman decides to wear cornrows, it is seen as fashionable; yet when Black women wear the same hairstyle, it is deemed as questionable.  Why is it that society praises White women when they wear braided styles, yet when Black women wear them, we have to think twice?

 

What are your thoughts? Is it wrong for White women to wear cornrows or other “Black” hairstyles?