Bantu knots. Cornrows. Box braids. Whatever you’ve known them as, the vast family of braided hairstyles has been around far longer than beauty trends, hashtags and Kardashians. For some of us, braids bring back nostalgic memories of intimacy, family and self-identity through artistic expression. However, over the past few years, traditionally Black, braided hairstyles — specifically on other races — have hit a mainstream nerve, evoking an uncomfortable, ever-present question for those both within and outside the African Diaspora: Is this cultural appropriation?
While the conversation isn’t an easy one to have, it is necessary given the media’s all-too-often problematic regard for (or neglect of) Black hair. “Braids started in Africa and can be traced back to Egypt as far as 3500 BC. Braiding is also a way to maintain our hair which is a more tightly coiled texture than the hair of other cultures,” says holistic braid stylist Tamara A., who specializes in styles rooted in tradition. “In Africa, braid styles and patterns are a way of distinguishing the different tribes, marital status, age, wealth, religion and social ranking. In some parts of Africa, the braids were a form of communication. In some Caribbean islands, braids were used as a way to escape slavery by forming intricate braid patterns that signified a map. These customs have been passed down to us which is why we take pride in the care of our hair and the art forms we can create through braiding.”
The types of braids you may see nowadays are as vast and different as the people who wear them, explains Stasha Harris, lead hairstylist and owner of MagicFingersStudio in Brooklyn. “Some of the common braiding styles right now are the six straight back feed-in braids, stitch braids and the lovely butterfly braid. Braided buns are also very popular. One of the more intricate and complicated braided styles would be the box braids with mini cornrows in between.” Also, we can’t forget the resurgence and current popularity of box braids. “People are now wearing [box braids] to work and for bigger events like red carpets, which is exciting; they work well on kinky and coily hair because of how the three strands interlock and hold in place,” says Vernon François, a hairstylist who has worked with Lupita Nyong’o, Willow Smith, Amandla Stenberg, Serena Williams, Solange Knowles and Ava DuVernay and is also the founder his own hair-care line, Vernon François Collection. “French braiding or cornrows where the ends are pulled out lightly for a soft feel are popular. Basket weave braiding is more complex; I did this for Willow Smith recently, it works well with locs, wavy or straight hair because the pattern effect is more visible.”
As these braided styles have risen in popularity, there remains an unfortunate, undeniable disparity in how braids are viewed across different cultures. “As women of color, our hair has been the most controversial and socially unacceptable image,” says Tamara. “We don’t just voice our concerns and opinions because we are sensitive. Our history shows the damage it has caused us with self imagery and acceptance struggles. We voice our concerns because it is time to be heard, respected, and acknowledged for honoring our hair and culture.”
The reality is, cultural appropriation does exist, and one of its most prevalent, visible forms is in the realm of hair. How, exactly, can cultural appropriation — as it applies to braids — be defined? The answer is a little different depending on who you ask. According to François, “For me, cultural appropriation is when an aesthetic of one culture is borrowed by another and is celebrated in a way that was never done for its originator. There are times when stealing a style is obvious and should be called out, because it just isn’t appropriate.”
Take, for example Kim Kardashian’s “boxer braids” — for which she was held up as a trendsetter — and not the countless women of color who had worn that hairstyle for years prior. The fact that a look could be deemed “trendy” on a Kardashian but “ghetto,” “unprofessional,” or “inappropriate” on a Black woman is where the problem lies. “When a braid style that’s been done by our culture for years has been renamed something else, we feel invisible,” explains Tamara. “When other cultures are respected and acknowledged for their traditions and we aren’t, it becomes a deeper issue that needs to be spoken about. It must begin with those considered the dominant culture to take accountability, be aware of your actions, and not ignore the voice of the black community.”
So how do you know if you should or shouldn’t be wearing a certain type of braid? In many cases, it seems that it’s not so much about someone’s race, but rather their intent and the language they use to discuss their style. “I think it all depends on intention,” says hairstylist Susan Oludele, whose clients include Beyoncé, Solange, Zoë Kravitz and Brandy. “What is your intention when you are creating these images? Do you want to inspire people? Or are you doing it because it’s trendy? There are two different outlooks on it.”
Another important way to avoid appropriating is to take the time to properly educate yourself on styles of other cultures and to acknowledge that a style is not merely a fleeting trend. “Don’t [wear braids] for fun or because your African-American boyfriend or girlfriend has them,” says François. “Learn about the story, find inspiration and give credit where credit’s due by explaining who or what has inspired you, like on social media.”
Tamara agrees that crediting your inspiration is one of the most crucial factors in honoring a culture rather than appropriating or co-opting it. She notes that it’s important to “[give] credit to the original names of styles,” and use specific terminology, “such as Bantu knots (originated by the Zulu tribe in Africa) — not ‘twisted mini-buns,'” for example. “Everyone gets inspired by other cultures; it’s a common cultural exchange, but it becomes an issue when that exchange is an unfair one and our history and customs are ignored,” she adds.
This concept of knowing a style’s history and of paying homage to its cultural inspiration is what has been so glaringly absent from many of fashion’s most egregious culturally appropriative hair moments. Take, for example, the now-infamous dreadlocksthat hairstylist Guido put on all the models at the Spring 2017 Marc Jacobs show. At the time, Fashionista noted a long list of 14 different “inspirations” that were heard bandied about backstage, but it was the inspirations that were omitted – Rastafarianism and Black culture — which were most striking and problematic.
We, as a society can’t be be afraid to call out those who perpetuate certain trends while omitting the voices and narratives of other cultures. That includes the stylists, models or celebrities involved in creating and wearing the look, yes, but the onus is also on the media. “Mainstream media has a big influence on the way we view and understand beauty,” says Tamara. It falls on publications, then, to seek out the real inspirations for and histories of these styles when celebrating them. And more than that, it’s on the media to speak up when something is amiss.
“When [a braided hairstyle] is publicized as being ‘cool’ by someone who’s not of African heritage then you should call it out and have that conversation — but not necessarily the person who is wearing it,” says François. “I’m talking about the journalists that are tagging it as trending. Be aware of who is celebrating it and ask yourself why. Are they wanting to attract more readers or followers? What are they trying to achieve?”
As Harris notes, “Honestly, there’s no rulebook when it comes to braids. Anyone can wear them, and when done correctly and well maintained, they can be a lovely look for anyone, man, woman or child.” However, before you sport them, pay credit where credit is due; be open for dialogue and education; and always use your voice to make a political statement that’ll last far longer than any hairstyle.