Hair is just one of the many things that black women have to defend themselves over on a consistent basis. Whether it’s braided hair, straight hair, red hair, or blue hair, black women are seemingly judged for it all. The kicker is that while black women are shamed for the hair trends they start, non-black women with the same hairstyles are praised, photographed, and preserved in the Smithsonian. Okay, that last example was hyperbole, but you would think that Kylie Jenner with a kanekalon ponytail was the Mona Lisa the way magazines talked about it. Last week, Marc Jacobs unveiled his newest fashion line with models who sported faux, yarn locs. The internet was divided. Half were adding this to yet another instance of cultural appropriation by famous white people. They schooled Jacobs and he doubled down into a questionable “I don’t see color” stance. The other half chalked this up to a cultural exchange. In their minds, non-black women can wear locs, braids, and afros because black women get relaxers and extensions. But is there an actual equivalency between the two? In order to determine this, we have to understand why black women wear straight hair. Here are just four of the many reasons.
#1. Extensions or wigs are a part of artistic expression.
Ask any hair vlogger, black hair is sensitive stuff. You can permanently change your natural hair texture just by adding color. Sleeping without a silk something (bonnet, wrap, or pillow) will knot up the ends of the hair and lead to breakage. Black hair thrives on the expensive and organic products (argan oil, shea butter, coconut oil etc.), for most people, it doesn’t click with the 99 cent brands. Because of these reasons, some women turn to wigs and extensions to live out their wildest hair dreams. You see, wigs don’t know the difference between VO5 and Versace. They’re perfectly comfortable being cherry red on Monday and chartreuse for the weekend. Wigs and extensions can be cut without a second thought. So for the women who wear them, extensions and wigs are a form of artistic expression.
#2. Two words: protective styling.
As stated above, black hair is sensitive. It thrives with two things: moisture and low manipulation. For some black women, wigs are a form of protective styling. Braiding the natural hair and putting a wig over it is, sometimes, the best way to care for it. Especially in the winter when the cold air can strip extra moisture from the hair.
#3: Assimilation is not appropriation.
What people don’t seem to understand is that for some black women, wearing their hair as it naturally comes out of their head is illegal. In an article for Bronze Magazine, Femi Sobowale talks about a school’s attempt to ban afro puffs. Just recently a federal court decided it was fair for employers to discriminate against dreadlocks. In South Africa, a group of girls at Pretoria Girls High had to protest to change an unwritten school policy that punished them for afros. Pay attention to the amount of backlash black girls and women receive for natural hair and it suddenly comes as no surprise that some women would seek to change the way their hair looks.
And Finally, #4: It’s none of your business.
Unless it’s the hair that is coming out of your own head, it really is none of your business. Yes it’s arguable that Eurocentric beauty standards have shaped what society sees as acceptable. Yes those changes can have negative psychological effects on anyone who doesn’t naturally have straight and sleek hair. However, instead of focusing the conversation on the black woman who has straight hair, the focus should instead be on the institutions that make straight and sleek hair the only viable option. Oftentimes, we’ll see opinion articles asking black women to embrace their natural hair and love themselves more. But those opinions don’t mean anything without an analysis of the society that surrounds the black woman. This a society that damns black women for natural hair, damns them for straight hair, and even damns them for having no hair. When Marc Jacobs, or any of his supporters, writes that non-black women can wear locs because black women wear wigs, all he is doing is definitively stating that he doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a black woman in this world. And if that is the case, maybe he shouldn’t appropriate their hairstyles.
By Lilian Uzokwe