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African braids: When did multi-cultural become ‘cultural appropriation’?

I have worn African braids (the term as advertised) twice now over summer. Once was during a period of career change, and the other when on holidays from work.  The process takes up to 10 hours, the end-result being a blend of natural and woven hair. Say goodbye to the hair dryer. Say hello to a few squeezes of leave-in spray!

However, I have had to ask myself whether I can do this again, or whether it might risk offence.  I have been reminded of the issue by a decision by Bentleigh Secondary College to reverse its position on 16 year old twins Grace and Tahbisa, born in South Sudan, who had been told to take out their braids by the weekend on the basis that they breached the school uniform policy.

The school had previously required other (presumably Caucasion) female students returning with braids or cornrows from Bali holidays to take them out, and had sought to apply this ‘one-rule-fits-all’ approach to Grace and Tahbisa.  The twins rightly resisted, but I was interested to read that one of the twins suggested that the Bali braids’ prohibition was “different” because “that’s cultural appropriation”.

The rise of the ‘cultural appropriation’ narrative appears to coincide with the 2015 outing of Rachel Dolezal, an American former civil rights activist and president of the National Association of the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) chapter in Spokane, Washington.  She resigned after her white parents outed her as Caucasion.

Ms Dolezal had quite spectacular African braids.  Amidst the fallout of her ‘race fakery’ scandal, she reportedly braided hair to make ends meet.

Now, Ms Dolezal claims to be a black woman trapped within a white body, CNN reporting this week that Ms Dolezal asserts that “race is a social construct” and that she is “trans-black”.

Some might roll their eyes at the reference to ‘trans-black’, and I’m not far off myself, but in a world embracing diversity more than ever before, where are on earth are we to draw the line between diversity and conformity?

Part of what I loved about wearing African braids was that it tested my traditional boundaries.  Life as a partner of a commercial law firm, as I was then, seemed far away (but was only a hair wash away) from my current look. I even felt creative. Memorable events during this period included attending Christmas Mass with my parents, and lunch with a (rather shocked) professional mentor.

It follows that, as someone coming from a conservative sphere myself, I have sympathy for a school seeking to encourage girls to concentrate on their education rather than their appearance.  However, every former female student knows that this is best regarded as a ‘stretch goal’.  Accordingly, celebrating diversity, whether cultural or otherwise, is potentially a more encouraging and realistic message.  For all involved then to split hairs (or braids) over what is culturally acceptable or not seems mentally exhausting, at the very least.

Not so long ago, Anglo-Australian girls returned from their Bali pilgrimage with, at worst, a few more days of fuzzy cornrows than was probably ideal.  Now, such an innocent attempt to enjoy a new look is at risk of judgmental treatment on unpalatable sites such as White People with Braids.

This site is not an isolated example.  The Internet is now replete with critical commentary about white people who wear black hairstyles.  For example, amidst the ‘firestorm’ of global controversy when Kim Kardashian’s younger sister, Kylie Jenner, decided to wear cornrows, came this pearler from a blog site called Everyday Feminism: “Jenner’s using her fame to call attention to her hair, which mimics Black culture, but not to the racist violence taking Black lives”.

This rather begs the question of, why can’t a hairstyle just be a hairstyle?

So, no, I don’t think wearing African braids or cornrows is a form of cultural appropriation.  It is not plagiarism.  I have not claimed to have independently created the concept.

Rather, just as I reap the benefits of a multi-cultural society in food, clothes and music, so too do I celebrate, and respect, the African hairstyles that I no longer feel allowed to wear.




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