On The Cultural Appropriation Of Natural Hair

09/07/2016 09:38 am ET Updated Sep 08, 2016
Rachel Dolezal/Facebook

Recently, Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who infamously posed as a black woman in 2015, lent her name, face and “talent” to a Braiding Demonstration in Dallas, Texas hosted by the organization BraidOn. Along with fellow hair stylist and BraidOn founder, Isis Brantley, Dolezal participated in what was billed a “BraidOn Economic Liberty March & Rally.”

Rachel Dolezal/Facebook

Okay, let’s start with the obvious and overt cultural appropriation. Actually, let’s start with the age-old fight over so-called good vs. bad hair. The natural texture of black hair has been described with terms with negative connotations over the years such as nappy and kinky. There has long existed a civil war in the black community with hair and skin tone at the center of the fight. Rather than waste time pinpointing the cause of this contention (slavery), I’d rather discuss the renaissance that has taken place over the last few years of black women falling back in love with their natural hair. My mother, aunts, cousins and a few friends have all divorced their flat irons and have been chemical-free for quite some time. Not that it matters, but as a man, I rather enjoy this nostalgic return to embracing natural hair.

Rachel Dolezal is by no means alone in her desire to emulate and imitate the black culture. Celebrities like the Kardashian ladies have made millions of dollars surgically enhancing their bodies to appear curvier and blacker. Lip injections, waist trainers and implants have all been implemented in a quest to recreate the classic black woman’s frame. The days of Abercrombie and Fitch ads lauding androgynous, white women as the perfect body shape are slowly slipping away. Now, it seems that a more voluptuous look is suddenly more desirable.

This is nothing new. Over 200 years ago, Saartjie Baartman, a black woman living in 19th-century Europe from southwestern Africa, was paraded around as a freak show exhibit named, Hottentot Venus. At only 4 feet 10 inches tall, Baartman’s curvaceous body was the source of ridicule, laughter and silent lust. Men flocked to her show to catch a glance at her despite the caricatures of her buxom body drawn and distributed all over Europe.

William Heath/Public Domain

You see, the problem with culture appropriation is that certain parts of a culture are first mocked then mimicked; it sends a message that our bodies, music, clothing and language are all coveted but we are not. Rachel Dolezal has taken this appropriation to another level. When she first hit the scene serving as the head of the Spokane, Washington NAACP, my first thought was “good on her.” It seemed to me that there was no harm in a white woman posing as black if she’s willing to help the black community. Then it dawned on me. She’s posing. That means that at any moment Dolezal could abandon her blackness and leave it on the side of the road. She could disappear into the anonymity that white privilege provides, even after all of the controversy she created. Still, in my opinion she was much ado about nothing; that is, until she decided to engage in her latest theft of black culture.

Rachel Dolezal may very well be a talented stylist but she doesn’t deal with the issues that women with a totally different texture of hair face. Unlike Dolezal, black women are not able to simply take out their braids when they are done being black. I can remember my mother spending hours on my little sister’s hair ensuring that it was properly moisturized and maintained.

The organization BraidOn put out a message through her Facebook page announcing Rachel Dolezal’s involvement attempting to reassure raised eyebrows that “Dolezal made it clear that her intentions in joining the rally and movement are to assist and support [Isis] Brantley…” Unfortunately, the message has been diluted by Dolezal’s presence because it communicates that black women need her presence to highlight this important cause that only impacts black women. This is the epitome of appropriation and privilege.

I believe wholeheartedly in the efforts of Isis Brantley and the BraidOn movement to bring awareness to the plight of black women who choose to wear a natural hairstyle. I hope the organization is successful in its fight against anti-braiding laws and other worthy causes surrounding natural hair. However, I just feel it should have been done without Dolezal on the marquis. If Dolezal truly wanted to help, then she should first understand the message her presence sends. The irony should not be lost on her that black women are demeaned in the business world and the military for wearing natural hair and a white woman is given top billing for bringing awareness to a cause that supports black women wearing their hair naturally.

Hair is a big topic in the black community. According to the market research firm Mintel, sales of styling products increased 26.8% from 2013 to 2015 but sales of relaxers have dropped over 18% in the same time frame due to the transition to natural hair. Hair salons like, Root & Fleurish Salon in Cypress, Texas, about 30 miles north of Houston, have been erected to cater to the unique needs of black women who have opted to wear their hair in a natural style. Natural hair has once again become a big business and the business is finally staying in the community. As more black women return to natural hairstyles, the economic impact is undeniable.

Root & Fleurish owner, JD Dunn providing hair care that meets the unique needs of black women who wear natural hairstyles
Root & Fleurish Salon/Facebook
Root & Fleurish owner, JD Dunn providing hair care that meets the unique needs of black women who wear natural hairstyles. 

Natural hair is beautiful not because another culture has sanctioned it. It’s beautiful because the black women who have chosen to wear their hair natural are beautiful. We have a duty to fight cultural appropriation by calling it out when we see it. This is deeper than hair; it’s about history. As black women move away from the tedious processes involved with making their hair look more like the images of beauty forcefully portrayed in the media, we should applaud those efforts. I feel it is a celebratory time now that black women are starting to mirror the images of powerful, black heroines of the past. I enjoy seeing thick afros like the one worn by civil-rights activist, Angela Davis or natural locks like the ones proudly sported by author and Nobel Laureate, Dr. Toni Morrison.

Photo courtesy of the White House.

The issue of hair may never die in our community. It is time we look at this from an economic and cultural standpoint. For every black-owned business like Root & Fleurish, there is a beauty supply store operating in our communities and owned by people who look nothing like the primary patrons.We don’t need outside influences to endorse or even acquiesce our culture; it is ours and it’s time we own it. Regardless of the different textures of our hair or the amount of melanin in our skin, I’m sure we can all agree on one thing – black is beautiful… all by itself.

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