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By: Jezerae Stewart/ Contributor

Very recently, my hair was braided into long box braids, and I have been given countless compliments on it. Despite the fact that I am extremely self-assured I have to admit it feels nice to hear such kind words, especially since I was so apprehensive to get the braids done the first place.

My concerns did not stem from inexperience. My hairstyles have changed over the years and braids have been a reoccurring look for me. They are low-maintenance and help keep my hair from drying out. Last year I wore my hair in braids for the first time in six years — the longest time I had gone without them. Initially I didn’t hide my braids, but I wasn’t showing them off either. I avoided taking pictures when out with my friends because I was afraid that people would judge my tresses before getting to know the person they were attached to. I didn’t want to be seen unkempt, unprofessional or undesirable. Having these ridiculous traits associated with braids, cornrows or dreads is not an uncommon experience for people of colour. A student from Claflin University in South Carolina was told that if she wanted to be successful in her internship that natural Black hairstyles, or “nappy [hair]” isn’t “happy here.”

Most of all I am upset knowing these stereotypes were influencing the way I feel about myself. In some respect, they always have. In the past year I’ve considered the influence of cultural appropriation and assimilation in my life. Dominant races are called ‘trendy’ when wearing cornrows or hoop earrings, whereas people of colour are labeled ‘ratchet.’ This is what cultural appropriation looks like. Kylie Jenner’s ‘boxer braids’ were labeled as a workout hairstyle, which completely disregarded the origin of the hairstyle. Just because the braids are commonly worn amongst female boxers and UFC fighters it does not mean we should call it anything other than what they actually are called — cornrows. I have avoided wearing sneakers, big hoop earrings, headscarves or anything that would signal my “blackness” as if it was a measure of my style. The fact that I feel inferior to White people when I wear braids stems from racism and assimilation. Instead of embracing the natural texture of my hair, I continue to treat (and damage) it to fit in. One could say that my personal experiences alone are not a reflection of societal attitudes towards black hairstyles, but as the Claflin University student can attest, this issue is bigger than myself.

I avoided taking pictures when out with my friends because I was afraid that people would judge my tresses before getting to know the person they were attached to. 

Maybe it was Beyoncé’s release of Formation or my recent obsession with Zoe Kravitz, but I am currently rocking box braids, wearing the latest addition to my sneaker collection (Nike Air Max 90’s if you must know) and for the first time in a long time I feel empowered. I am packing up the cultural normalcies that fostered my insecurities and sending them in a box to the left. The culture our society emulates will no longer make me feel like less than myself for embracing a part of my culture. At the end of the day I cannot tell another person how to dress or wear their hair, but hopefully different perspectives will facilitate understanding and respect for all expressions of culture.

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