For a long time, I couldn’t quite place my finger on what exactly bothered me about seeing a non-black women rocking cornrows or faux fros or… bantu knots. But watching my daughter out of the side of my eye, trying to twist her doll’s hair while I casually perused my Facebook feed, it hit me. There ― for what seemed like the umpteenth time ― was a Kardashian, appropriating a black hair style as her own.
When Khloe Kardashian or her stylist decided that it would be trendy to do her hair in bantu knots, they likely thought that she would look, cutting edge and chic if paired with her black choker and baggy Raiders t-shirt.
What I saw was my youth, and looking at my daughter, I realized that one day she will do her hair like this, too. Just like one day, she will wash her daughter’s hair on a Sunday afternoon, place her in between her legs and spend an hour gently cornrowing her hair into a style that can be worn for the week. When I looked at those mal-formed bantu knots, I saw black heritage that spans generations and continents.
“When I looked at those mal-formed bantu knots, I saw black heritage that spans generations and continents.”
Many people, indeed many black people, will say, “Who cares? It’s just hair. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” Yes, with everything black people have to deal with right now, this is not a life and death issue. But it is an issue. The problem with the Kardashians and other white people culturally appropriating black hair styles is simple: These are black historical styles, and they haven’t earned the right to wear them.
Despite the vast number of countries black people come from, despite our oppressed and fractured histories, these traditional styles bind us together. They have survived! They survived slavery, colonialism, diasporas…THEY SURVIVED.
Black people stolen as slaves were stripped of their lineage, languages, history and cultures, but our hair styles survived the middle passage and link us to our black brothers and sisters, whether they are on the continent of Africa or in countries like Norway, South Korea or England. Our cornrows, bantu knots, twists, locs and many more styles are the one thing we all have in common no matter what part of the world we live in. And for those of us disconnected from our history, it is the one thing that remains intact after centuries of repression.
For people like Kim, Khloe or Kylie who love black men, adore black culture, (but yet, have no knowledge, no care and very little advocacy for black issues or black history), to take a style and own it as their own because it is trendy is disrespectful.
“The problem with ... white people culturally appropriating black hair styles is simple: These are black historical styles, and they haven’t earned the right to wear them.”
In many ways, it’s the same as wearing blackface or a dreadlock hat; it’s play acting with someone’s heritage, and it needs to stop.
Like it or not, how the Kardashian women wear their hair matters precisely because people talk about it, because these styles are emulated without giving credit to the history of where they are from.
Because when they do it, it’s new and trendy. But when black women rock a style that black women (and men) have been wearing since ancient civilization, it’s ghetto, unprofessional and somehow threatening. This double standard is symptomatic of systemic racism.
Invariably, there will be those who will point to black women wearing extensions or weave or dying their hair blonde as an example of cultural appropriation going the other way. While we can trace much of the black obsession with “good hair” black to westernized and European standards of beauty, it is also important to be aware that extensions are indeed a traditional form of black hair styling. Many African tribes used the sinew of animals to weave into their own hair for traditional styles. So this too is something that has survived generations.
It’s not reasonable to expect that hair styles will never be emulated, but it’s important for anyone with the privilege to dip in and out of black hair styles as they become trendy to understand and acknowledge the history and endurance of the styles they choose to copy.