Despite some people claiming that we now live in a “post-racial” era, racism is alive and well in the form of institutional and systemic racism, microagressions, and cultural appropriation.
We’re now in a time where black hair is being appropriated without recognition. Rita Ora, Katy Perry, Kendall Jenner, Cara Delevingne, and other celebrities have been pictured wearing cornrows as of late and many media outlets have called it a “new trend.” To say this is to erase an entire culture and history of people who have long been ridiculed, stereotyped, and disrespected for wearing a hairstyle that has been part of black history since 3000 B.C.
This isn’t like childhood when you wouldn’t let someone else have something because you had it first; the appropriation of cornrows is a slap into the face to any black man or woman who has had to deal with the societal backlash that came along with wearing them.
In middle school, I hated the questions, snickers, and comments so much that I stopped wearing braids, even though anyone who came back from vacation with beads and braids was the center of attention for the week they had them. In fact, it was only eight years later, after repeatedly chemically straightening my hair as soon as it even remotely looked “kinky,” that I decided that I loved braids and went back to the hairstyle. In a society where a woman’s beauty lies in the length and texture of her hair, black woman have been told that they aren’t beautiful because their hair isn’t. Thousands of employees all over North America, mostly in the United States, were fired because of unprofessional hairstyles like cornrows and dreadlocks. They were associated with gang activity, ghetto lifestyles, poverty, and a lack of intelligence.
Black hair has been regulated through legislation in the military, workplace, and education system but also through societal values and expectations. The emergence of the cornrow trend only serves as a reminder that something is new and fashionable when accessorized with fair skin and smooth hair.
Marie Claire and other fashion magazines have been culprits of the attempted rebranding of cornrows, but the L.A. Times were by far the worst culprit. The newspaper printed that “cornrows are moving away from urban, hip-hop to more edgy and chic” and also that “they have to be on the right person with the right clothing.” Braids were worn as a specific part of black style. Many people endured sitting between their mom, family member, or hairdresser’s legs for hours, enduring pulling, twisting, combing, and the throbbing headache after being done, just so we could carry a bit of our history on our heads.
Black people seem to serve as a societal tool for finding new trends. Whether it is big butts, twerking, or hair, it always sends the message that nothing can be cool when associated with blackness. Pieces of our culture are taken, repurposed, and marketed as hot, edgy, and new. We are left out of the conversation about a trend that we have fought to feel proud of. Our hairstyles are cool enough to wear, but not quite cool enough to get the recognition or respect we deserve. For the mainstream, it’s a fleeting trend, but to black people, it’s a lifestyle.