Deeper Than Hair: Students talk style and appropriation

By: Victoria Alcindor

“My hair means power, strength, growth, and it’s a reminder of where I come from.” – Freshman Javon McCoy. Photo by Victoria Alcindor

The phrase ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ has been around for centuries, but some find a problem when certain ethic hairstyles are being worn or imitated by people who don’t fit into that ethnic group. And when it comes to Black people, it’s deeper than hair. 

Many ethnic hairstyles have deep-rooted history that have been preserved and still worn today. According to Ebony Magazine writer Princess Gabbara, Bantu knots can be traced back to 1500 CE in Southern Africa, where people with thick, curly, coarse hair wore them as a protective style. In Ethiopia, cornrows were worn by warriors and kings as a form of identification since before 3000 BC.

Dreadlocks can be traced back to many cultures. The earliest examples were found in Ethiopia and Egypt, and the hairstyle was greatly adopted by the Jamaicans to represent rebellion in ex-slaves against the Eurocentrism that was once forced upon them. They were even referred to as “dreadful” by the Eurocentric Jamaican society. Many people today refer to the style as ‘locs’ to stray away from the negative connotation of ‘dread.’ 

Hair amongst Black people is used as a form of cultural expression. However, throughout history it has been made clear that natural hair was unacceptable. 

“In a society that associates hair that is straight or has loose curls as ‘tidy,’ we obviously don’t fit,” said Anibe Idajili, author of She Leads Africa. 

There have been many examples of people who wore their hair in an ethnic style suffering because it was seen as unattractive, unkept, and unprofessional by mainstream society. 

“Its really just me, from the darkness of my skin to the history from my family. It’s just how I like it and how I’m going to keep it.” – Junior Qwalei Haskins. Photo by Victoria Alcindor

Chastity Jones lost a customer service job offer simply because she wouldn’t cut her locs. She was told “they tend to get messy,” by the hiring manager. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit on Jones’s behalf in 2013 and lost. 

In 2018 a high school wrestler in New Jersey was forced to either cut his locs off or forfeit the match. A video of the wrestler getting his locs cut went viral. And there was widespread outcry over the humiliation the athlete was subjected to. The referee was later banned from refereeing any other wrestling matches in the  county.

“In this culture, our hair isn’t appreciated or loved, and we have been taught to think that our hair was problematic,” Lori L. Tharps, a hair historian and co writer of the book Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, told Vogue Magazine in 2020. 

“When I was about nine years old, I asked my mom if I could straighten my thick natural hair with a perm… Unbeknownst to my young mind, I was making my first attempt to conform to white mainstream society,” writes Gabreielle Kwarteng in her 2020 Vogue story, “Why I don’t refer to my hair as “Dreadlocks.

“I like my hair because it makes me feel good about myself.” – Freshman Temiloluwa Yemi-Mabo. Photo by Victoria Alcindor

Celebrity Kim Kardashian West sparked controversy in 2018 when she wore her hair in cornrows with extensions. Kardashian, who is white and was married to rapper Kanye West at the time, and her Instagram photos raised questions about whether or not having a black husband and biracial kids gives her more leeway to adopt Black culture.

Where, then, is the line between appreciation and appropriation?  

“Appreciation is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally,” writes Kelsey Holmes of Greenheart Club, a Chicago-based organization that promotes international education, environmental awareness and citizen diplomacy. “Appropriation on the other hand, is simply taking one aspect of a culture that is not your own and using it for your own personal interest.” 

 Here at Riverside, student opinions vary.  

“If [white girls] see a Black girl with a certain hairstyle, think it’s cute, and copy the style, I don’t see a problem with it,” said sophomore Nehemiah Lassiter.

“It isn’t right that the styles that were considered ‘ghetto,’ ‘unprofessional,’ and ‘unkept,’ by non-POC’s are now being copied by those very same people, simply because it’s a trend,” said junior Janika Bunch.

My hair means power, strength, growth,” said freshman Javon McCoy. “It’s a reminder of where I come from.”

“Its really just me, from the darkness of my skin to the history from my family,” said junior Qwalei Haskins. “It’s just how I like it and how I’m going to keep it.”

“They think it’s just a hairstyle, and to some people it may be, but there’s a lot of history behind these styles,” said freshman Temiloluwa Yemi-Mabo, who moved to Durham from Nigeria when she was nine years old. “It’s like cultural appropriation.”

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