The Thin Line Between Fashionable & Offensive

rexusa_1924228aaPhoto: Everett/REX USA
Who hasn't looked around the Internet for hair inspiration? Runway photos, celebs on the red carpet, Instagram; these are just some of the places we go for ideas. Lately, one of those ideas has been cornrows. Kendall Jenner wore them, infamously. So did style-setter Cara Delevingne, at the Elle Style Awards and the Met Gala. Jessica Alba and Natalie Dormer also tried out the look. We even covered it when cornrows hit the runway earlier this year.
So, cornrows are officially a trend among young white women, but the problem is this isn't just a matter of copying a hairstyle. Just like fashion has historical context and meaning — often political meaning — so does beauty. Hair has the added layer of cultural meaning, which makes it a whole different ball of wax. “We hold all this stuff in our hair…it is a repository of our history, of our heroes, of our happiness…it’s how we identify,” says Michaela Angela Davis, an image activist and one of the founding editors of the now-defunct Vibe magazine.
Cornrows originated in Africa and the Caribbean — their very name indicates agriculture, planting, and labor. “In Trinidad, we call them 'cane rows,' because of slaves planting sugar cane," says Patrice Grell Yursik, author of the blog AfroBella. They are an intrinsic part of the Black tradition for both men and women or, as Davis puts it, "They’re part of our cultural and artistic vocabulary."
When that culture is co-opted by celebrities, influencers, or the fashion industry at large, there’s bound to be outrage. When the Kendall Jenner image went out in a tweet that claimed she had taken “bold braids to a new epic level,” there was an immediate backlash, mostly from Black women who noted that there was nothing “new” about the look at all.
It seems the more popular cornrows have become among white women, the more they are drained of their history. “Sometimes editors see something that someone pseudo-popular does and they say it’s new, fresh, or edgy,” says India Jewel Jackson, an editor at Hearst Publications. “But, when it was us doing it, it was ghetto. Now that it’s someone blonde and blue doing it, it’s fresh.”
The LA Times was explicit that braids are more chic when they are less black when it posted a photo of Ms. Delevingne alongside a quote from a well-regarded stylist saying, “Cornrows are moving away from urban, hip-hop to more chic and edgy.”
All of this adds up to one very serious problem: "It's called 'Columbusing,'" explains Yursik, referring to that oh-so-famous explorer who claimed he had discovered America, which had been sitting there, inhabited, for centuries. “It’s saying that something is new or your own without giving fair attribution to the original source.”
rexusa_190578mPhoto: Matt Baron/BE Images
And history, as it does, is merely repeating itself. When Bo Derek wore beaded cornrows for the iconic '70s film 10, the style became known (among white people) as “Bo Braids.” According to The Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History by Victoria Sherrow, they had become such a trend that hair salons in major cities had to either train or hire professionals who knew how to properly cornrow hair. “When people said [Derek] made them cool, we were like, WHAT?” Davis exclaims. "It just hurts."
Contrary to popular assumption, racism is not just based on skin color, it's often manifested in microaggressions pertaining to hair (specifically its texture). Perhaps nobody understands that better than Diane Bailey, a brand ambassador for Shea Moisture, who successfully petitioned to make New York one of the first states to license specifically for natural hair and braiding in the 1990s.
“The legitimacy of natural hair goes beyond licensing,” she says of her accomplishment. “It’s part of a cultural expression of beauty for Africans and African Americans.” Even the naming of braids, she points out, shows how racism is prevalent in the history of beauty: "You see the French braid or the Dutch braid," she says with a laugh. "Um, I don’t see French people with their hair braided like that! I don’t see Dutch women running around wearing cornrows. Those are inverted braids, or a four-strand, or a three-strand…but to sell the image better, they gave it a European tag. If it had an African tag it would be diminished, and that’s disrespectful."
Another harmful tag is the shiny and new one. When we refer to a centuries-old style as something "new," we are ignoring and denying the history it carries with it, effectively casting aside an entire population of people who should be able to claim ownership of that piece of social currency. Further, it's a group that has already been excluded from contributing to the landscape of beauty and forced to mold to the straight-haired ideal in order to fit in. “The mainstream has to understand that we were way behind the eight ball. You can’t just act now like we’ve been invited to the party this whole time,” Davis says.
“We finally have these movements and blogs — these voices you’ve never heard before. And, they are serving and bringing it,” she adds. Social media is a platform for people to openly and democratically discuss what they’ve been feeling. We would hope that the heightened awareness it brings makes us all a little smarter about what we post, what we say, and who it affects. To all the newfound proponents of interesting braiding techniques, Jackson says, “You have to remember you have the luxury of not caring if something is black or white. Because, you’re white.” Even if we think we’re being “post-racial” or “colorblind,” that doesn’t mean that everyone else is, too.
However, that doesn’t mean that cornrows are for Black women only. “The problem is not that Cara [Delevingne] has done this — it’s the lens that it’s seen through,” Yursik explains. “I have no feelings about white women wearing cornrows until the media commentary comes,” Jackson adds.
"Fashion and hair integrate, and we are all inspired by each other’s art forms. But, when you are inspired, it should be noted,” Bailey says. Yursik, of AfroBella, points out somewhat cheekily that she doesn't know how one would give that kind of credit. ("What are you supposed to do, wear a T-shirt?") In other words, don't be surprised if your hair elicits a real response. There is pain that has to heal; a process that takes time and understanding.
"What you’re hearing is generations of hurt," Davis says, "and in order for us to move forward, we have to hear it, get through it, and then get over it. That’s the message — we have to be heard and hopefully understood, and then [we can] let it go."
“Your privilege needs to be shared in that you share the discomfort, too,” she adds. "If a few people feel uncomfortable because of it, just think about what it’s like to be a Black girl."

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