The rise of the cultural appropriation conversation has been full of intersecting and often argumentative voices. From studies about hair discrimination to black women sharing their reactions to questionable magazine spreads to white women defending their dreadlocks, it’s a nebulous, confusing and frustrating conversation. And black women seem to, yet again, be doing the heavy lifting when it comes to educating their peers on the negative effects of cultural appropriation.
And black women seem to, yet again, be doing the heavy lifting when it comes to educating their peers on the negative effects of cultural appropriation.
Hair is such an intimate and personal yet public thing that we tie significant portions of our identity in. It can be hard to look critically at how our hair affects others because we work so hard simply to cultivate a positive personal self-image. While I think a “devil-may-care” attitude is good to a certain extent with hair, the dynamic between white curls and black curls is a difficult one that deserves it’s own sensitivities, considerations and respect. And the burden of responsibility should fall largely on me and other white women, not the other way around. Here are a few steps that I have taken to not appropriate black hair.
1. Educate myself about proper vocabulary
Knowing the right words to use to describe our white curls is really important, because certain words—while they may be listed as synonyms in the dictionary or thesaurus—hold culturally and socially important nuances that should be understood and respected. For example, corkscrew curls are not the same thing as afros, which Allure Magazine learned after publishing a beauty article particularly fraught with black hair appropriation. Telling white women with straight hair that, they too, can have an afro is a slap in the face to the black women and people of color who 1) know those curls are not an afro and 2) have actual afros and have been catching backlash for them for a very long time.
2. Find alternatives to culture-specific hairstyles
Building from point #1, I try not force my hair into a hairstyle that is culturally-specific when that culture is not authentic to my upbringing or hair texture. Even if it comes from a place of admiration and solidarity, white women can often get away with wearing black hairstyles in spaces where black women have historically been punished for wearing them. Finding alternatives to culturally-specific hairstyles—like wearing three-stranded braids instead of cornrows or a messy topknot instead of bantu knots—is not particularly difficult, and lets you explore your own creativity instead of taking from a marginalized culture in the name of “trend” or “style.” Many of these cultural styles are protective ones meant to preserve hair length and promote healthy 4b and 4c locks, and were developed out of necessity.
3. Put my money where my hair is
Us curlies spend a fair amount of money and time searching for the products that treat our hair juuuust right, so why not make our product searches even more mindful? Black women and people of color have been making some of the absolute best products and accessories for curly hair for a long time, and using our money to support those businesses is extremely important. While the gender pay gap is very real, the race/gender pay gap is even more significant: according to a 2015 Pew Research Study, white women earn 82 cents on the dollar, whereas black women earn just 65 cents and Hispanic women earn a mere 58 cents.
White women have more earning power than women of color, and we should use some of that power and privilege to support economic endeavors spearheaded by our sisters of color—what easier way to do that than buying products that are already awesome and work really well? NaturallyCurly has a fantastic “Support Black Business” products page in their SHOP that makes it easy to discover new black-owned brands and purchase more of your favorites. I started seeking out black-owned beauty brands about two years ago (Miss Jessie’s Jelly Soft Curls is my holy grail), and starting your purposeful buying journey is as easy as Googling “black-owned curly hair companies.”
4. Acknowledge differences in my curly hair journey
Having curly hair is wonderful, but also really hard. Everyone struggles to accept our textures on both good and bad days. It’s important, however, that white women acknowledge how different our journey to self and social acceptance can be from what black naturalistas experience. There is still significant prejudice against black hair textures and styles, specifically when black women are rocking them. While a white woman may experience discomfort, weird comments or pressure to straighten her hair (personally I am very tired of strangers thinking it’s fine to grab a handful of my frizz), it’s not mired in a system of racism, discrimination and purposeful exclusion. I’m sure some white women out there have lost jobs, relationships or opportunities because of her hair, but it’s simply not with the same frequency or intensity that black women and all people of color with textured hair endure, nor is there a system of deep, historical inequity propping it up.
5. Don’t get mad, get better
Finally, I acknowledge that I'm probably going to mess up. Our media and society work very hard to shield us white people from our mistakes, and it’s possible that we’ve been appropriating black hair without even realizing it. Making a mistake doesn’t make you a terrible person with no sensitivity to the struggles of marginalized people, but your reaction to that mistake says a lot about your willingness to make the lives of black women and all people of color better. “I think white women should work to create more inclusive spaces for black women, period…to do that, [white women] should make sure not to fetishize or objectivize us and stand up for us when other people are attempting to do that” said Ineye Komonibo, Media, Culture and Communication Graduate Student at NYU. Making these inclusive spaces is tough, and if you do find yourself participating in disrespectful behaviors, publicly owning up to it, apologizing and learning from it is essential to keeping shared spaces safe.
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To see more of Emily's hair journey, check out her Instagram @Emily_Neie.