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?