With the beginning of festival season comes desert-weather outfits. Along with bralette tops and distressed jean shorts, a major trend this season of festival culture is cornrows. For festival goers, this hairstyle is a great way to eliminate hair styling time during the busy festival schedule and keep hair out of one’s face for the concerts that require a lot of dancing. For others, this is cultural appropriation.
Likely when you hear cultural appropriation, you align this term with a negative connotation that insights racism. Or maybe you hear cultural appropriation and suddenly become very confused. That is me. I am confused by cultural appropriation. The standard definition is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. At first, this sounds like a great idea; with a closer look at specific circumstances of appropriation, it becomes much more complicated than cultures sharing culture.
Before you decide to bandwagon on that “trend”, you may want to know your stance on cultural appropriation. Anyone can wear their hair in cornrows. The only requirement is that your hair is long enough to braid. So what makes it cultural appropriation when someone wears cornrows who isn’t black?
Cultural appropriation hurts when the style leads to racist generalization or stereotypes that originated from that exact “trend” you’re wearing. Cornrows are not necessarily stylistic. Black people maintain naturally textured hair using cornrows. Society has been telling black people that their hair needs to be tamed to be deemed attractive or even professional. Schools have even banned children from wearing this braided hairstyle. When people who are not black, especially white people, adopt this hairstyle, they wear it as a fashion statement. White people wearing cornrows has become a cherrypicking of black culture that white people have chosen as their newest Coachella outfit idea. When people from other cultures thoughtlessly use different cultural traditions and decorations to create an aesthetic, but strip it of its meaning, cultural appropriation is hurtful to marginalized groups.
“Black women have been wearing braids for a very long time, and that’s another part of the frustration. We’ve been using that as a protective style, as a hairstyle. That’s been in our culture and our community for a very long time. So it’s not this new, fresh, fun thing.” -Zendaya, activist and social media influencer.
Some believe labeling clothing items, accessories, hair styles, and decorative body art as cultural appropriation is stopping cultures from combining as a promotion towards embracing differences amongst us all. The truth is, cultural appropriation is something we all do everyday. We use everyday household items that are adopted from cultures all over the world. It could be easily argued that confining a specific hairstyle to one culture is only creating more of a divide between cultures. I believe it is important to try to embrace culture and share it at the same time.
I talked to cultural literature expert Linda Salem at San Diego State University for her expert advice. Her reply was to “respectfully learn about the tradition and try to celebrate it in a way that is respectful. The point is to cultivate mutual respect. You should consider your own cultural privilege as you participate cross-culturally, meaning do you understand the difference between privilege you have and that it may not exist at that level for the culture you appropriate”. Linda also gave an example of how she properly participates in another culture, “when I participate in Dia De Los Muertos I have educated myself on the history and origin of the holiday…We all will make mistakes in sensitivity as we go along. That’s okay. We must never stop trying”.
As Linda stated, it is important to talk to people you know who face discrimination for wearing that style and ask them their opinion on appropriation, but remember those people do not speak on behalf of the entire group they belong to. Wear the style if you love the culture and genuinely appreciate and embrace it regularly. Don’t just participate while the ‘trend’ is hot”.
If you could care less and just think cornrows look cool because white celebrities have been wearing them recently, please stay away from the braids. Blindly wearing cornrows to gain attention and compliments on your new hairstyle will definitely offend people. Before you decide to participate in any style that could be deemed as cultural appropriation, learn the real meaning behind the style you chose. That way cultures are sharing more than cultural aesthetic, and are sharing traditions and values that can be appreciated and respected by anyone.