This is a question I have heard no less than a couple hundred times. I think a lot of the time people forget why hair straightening in the black community became a thing. This is what the community had to say:
We are all here on earth to enjoy each other’s differences! If a White/Asian/Arabic person wants to get dreadlocks it shows that they respect and know how embrace Black culture and this should make Black people pleased and the same goes when the situation is reversed.
Absolutely not! Just because a colored person chooses to relax their hair doesn’t mean that he/she is trying to associate themselves with another culture. For someone who’s been on both sides of the fence, fully natural and relaxed, I can understand why many women choose to relax their hair. While I was natural, I enjoyed knowing I wasn’t damaging my hair, and I had a lot of fun experimenting with new styles and getting in touch with my natural roots. However when I got my new job which required me to work longer hours, I found it difficult to spend so much time doing twist outs and Bantu knots when I was dead tired or had to be up early. So I chose to relax my hair. That’s it. The choice had nothing to do with race, just convenience.
There is difference between a general hair style such as wearing one’s hair straight or curly and someone of the cultural majority using cornrows, braids or dread locks as a temporary fashion trend to gain popularity or sell products. There are many people of all races and cultural backgrounds that straighten their hair chemically, as there are many who use chemicals to make their hair curly. That alone is not considered cultural appropriation. Not all Native Americans or individuals of European or Asian decent have straight hair; straight hair styles are not generally seen as a strong part of one’s culture.
While on the other hand, cornrows, braids and dread locks have been a central part of many cultures originating in Africa. Straight hair alone does not have the cultural or historical meanings that braids or cornrows have now, and have had in the past. People of color do not want a fundamental part of their culture used as a trend or a fad for the financial gain of the cultural majority.
From former enslaver to modern corporate, there were and still are bylaws to ensure we always strive to be anything except who we are. To assimilate to European standard that try to keep us uncomfortable with ourselves, always aspiring to be acceptable or equal, and ultimately to make and keep others comfortable. So considering only these very few things, hopefully it offers a healthier perspective why whites, or anyone else, suddenly saturating themselves in the culture of a highly despised and discriminated against people to be trendy will always be considered appropriation.
I don’t believe in rhetorical references to history to make excuses, however, the first thing a white person should be thinking when they do something that is considered culturally “Black” is why do I want to identify with non-mainstream? I mean, I haven’t seen a white mainstream CEO, Senator, Judge, or anyone in a position of power or influence wear dreads, braids or even a beard. Unless there is an honest introspection, then I don’t recommend expecting us to just accept it. For example, locking is really a religious requirement for Rastafarianism, although many now do it as a style.
When Blacks straightened, it was for assimilation that was REQUIRED, not a random choice to make a statement. I mean, as slaves, we really didn’t have a choice. Then, as freed slaves it could mean the difference between getting hired as a maid to feed your family or not. Black men cutting their hair into a nice shape up or fade was the difference between working the railroad or inside the rail car and we certainly could not fight in the civil war without that clean-cut. Today, when a Black person decides that they no longer feel that their hair should be used to determine their worth, they often allow it to revert to its natural state – I guess that is the movement or statement some are making in a specific context. We still wear the ties, the suits and other uniforms required by mainstream, so I guess we’re really half way there.
Why is it different? Because Caucasian hair does not naturally lock (dread), it matters; it does not stay braided without a rubber band on the end, it unravels; and it is absolutely appropriation, in my opinion, even patronizing or mocking. It’s all about knowing the history and that often brings an understanding. When a white person wears these styles, they are making a non mainstream, non establishment statement; not simply wearing their natural hair because it’s easier. I mean, if you want to be a rapper, its okay, but not if you want to be a CEO? That’s why it’s just not a good look. Although some refer to it as such, Natural Hair is not a movement or statement in my opinion– it’s just what it is – choosing not to do anything chemically or otherwise to change the curl pattern of hair. I don’t know why white people always want to ignore the origin of a thing and then ask why Blacks get a little offended. This country was founded on some messed up principles in a lot of ways that negatively affected Black folks, the original slave class (cause there is still a slave class), and it would be nice if Whites would embrace their own cultures since they got to keep them when they emigrated.
By the way, Native Americans braid their hair as part of their culture which precedes the presence of white people in this county. You might remember one of the famous styles in the 80s was “Pocahontas Braids” – a part in the middle with two 3 strand braids straight down each side of the head.
Cultural appropriation is the borrowing or theft of an element of cultural expression of one group by another. Braids, cornrows and dreads are an artistic form of expression among cultures with coily, kinky, curly hair.
With other cultures straight hair was just what grew out their head naturally. It is not manipulated in a way to be different or stand out or make a statement.
In America, the afro (along with other styles like braids and locs) was a political statement/symbol rejecting assimilation and integration based on how we were treated in this country.
I personally do not associate relaxers or hair straightening with cultural appropriation. With other cultures, wearing straight hair was not a form of expression.
Now if you were to say a specific style like, The Bob, I could understand. Irene Castle, a ballroom dancer and Broadway actress, popularized the bob as an expression for independent young women. It was done for a shock effect and to stand out from all the women with long tresses. Back then, women only wore their hair long.
Even though we may have the term cultural appropriation, I believe anyone should be able to express themselves through their hair, whatever way they wish. I just hope people are conscious and aware and in no way disrespectful.