By: Rachel Jackson
In the interest of transparency, I’ll begin with a confession: I’m a weaveaholic. I boast an advanced degree in DIY Hair Extensions from the prestigious YouTube, and could rattle off a list of lovely ladies who can teach you how to slay your style through a computer screen. I’ve been twisting and retwisting my own Senegalese twists for at least two years now and while I was in college, I rocked an ever-evolving silky sew-in.
I even used to offer my amateur services to my friends and in high school, I spent my meager paychecks from my job at the movie theater in the pursuit of professional microbraids. For me, hair extensions have always been an outlet and an ally, ever-present and deeply rooted in my continuing development. I love the freedom of expression we all gain through our hair, and for me, weave is inextricably wrapped up in my continuing journey into liberated womanhood.
Recently, thanks to a 24-hour news cycle and the ubiquitous megaphone that is social media, we’ve been bombarded by articles with clickbaited titles that scream Cultural Appropriation! at us. Kardashian cornrows, Justin Bieber’s dreadlocks, and the recent incident at SFSU are breaking news items, and it has brought folks out from the woodworks that are eager to throw their two cents into the comments section of every published piece.
You may call me masochistic, but I took some time to read a few of these sentiments. Imagine my surprise (and disdain) when I saw a massive number of commenters across various sites arguing that black women who wear straight weave are guilty of cultural appropriation! What?! How, Sway?
How could something that is so deeply entrenched in my personal identity be categorized as appropriation? And it’s not only my identity we’re discussing here, but those of my sisters, my cousins, my closest friends and pettiest foes. I’ve worn an every hairstyle under the sun that uses extensions. Beauty supply stores are my playgrounds. I know the qualities that set apart good braiding hair, and I can readily recite the hair extension color code alphabet. How could something so familiar be taken from me, from my culture?
On some level, I get it. When the claws come out in the online forum, whoever argues the longest or uses the most capital letters prevails. It’s easy to get a little confused (or misled) about what is equivalent to appropriation. I’m here to offer you a little help with what some would call an alternative view of the issue: my straight weave is not appropriation of any culture. It is not a cry for help, nor is it a plea for societal acceptance.
I can almost hear the furious keyboard-pecking of the dissenters, and I know what they’re typing. “Is she saying that black people can’t appropriate culture?” No, not at all! Anyone can appropriate, but specific things must happen in order for it to be properly classified as such. You see, in that culture word web that includes the negatively-framed ‘appropriation,’ we also have ‘assimilation’ and ‘appreciation,’ and those 3 concepts entail different situations.
Appropriation has the most negative connotation of the three terms, and rightfully so. Simply put, appropriation occurs when a member of an out-group uses or adopts the cultural elements of an in-group. The term is inseparable from societal power constructs, and so it is applied when a member of a dominant group picks an element of culture to borrow from a smaller, less dominant (and often marginalized) group.
If you need visuals, examine Pharrell’s feather war bonnet for ELLE mag or Kylie Jenner’s kanekalon ponytail on IG. It gets really gritty when the member of said dominant group is profiting from the usage of the minority culture, whether it’s for money or notoriety. Uninformed usage in exchange for profit always equals appropriation.
Assimilation is a little less harrowing, and essentially the opposite of appropriation. It’s when the marginalized group takes on culture from a larger, more dominant group as a means of establishing stability within that culture. For a positive example, imagine minorities donning cowboy hats to go to a rodeo.
For a darker one, imagine Native Americans forced to abandon their language and cut their hair to fit into established “American” norms. Assimilation is a mixed bag; some argue that it’s for the greatest good of the marginalized group. An example: I’ve been privy to a few conversations between black women about switching to straight, lighter hair to succeed in professional workplaces. Although I think it’s a problematic solution, I can’t advise any woman to miss out on a promotion in good conscience. Getcha paper, boo, and love yourself in the process.
Lastly, the best and brightest of the three terms, is appreciation. It occurs when the out-group culture borrower represents the in-groups cultural elements in a way that honors and empowers the culture. It’s wearing a traditional sari to an Indian wedding, or volunteering to stir the oxtails at your Jamaican friend’s party– the important key here is the mutual benefit for both cultures. It’s usually why appreciation comes with a verbal invitation, and it goes hand in hand with an extensive knowledge, respect, and understanding of a culture.
So, what does all of this have to do with my black woman weave? The distinctions between these concepts is crucial to understanding why my straight bundles or blonde-tipped bob doesn’t appropriate anyone’s culture. When have black women ever been a dominant group? Zora Neale Hurston once wrote that the black woman is “the mule of the world,” and although we’ve made great strides into equality since her time, not much has changed at some societal levels. And let’s be real— neither straight nor blond hair serves as definitive markers for any particular culture, unlike cornrows or a kimono.
Straight hair is represented on every continent (thus, in every culture) around the world, and various groups from several spots on the globe sport blonde hair. And to be frank, my natural hair is magical. As long as there are flat irons around, I can achieve straight, highlighted styles without the aid of extensions if I so choose.
So who am I culture vulture-ing when I wear my inches, bleached or non-bleached? Straight weave is just an extension of all that I already have, an outward adornment of what I already am. If you see me swinging 32 inches of silky, Beyonce’-esque golden hair, assume it’s the only look that could outwardly reflect the fierceness I felt that day, and not that I strive to borrow carelessly from a certain group of people.
But why does any of this matter? Appropriation is a detriment. It’s harmful, it’s oppressive, and it often negates or silences the rights and contributions of the marginalized groups. Some of you out there genuinely may not care if someone borrows from your culture without doing their due diligence, and that’s perfectly fine. But when others fight against it, let them.
I’m not excusing our sister at SFSU for her approach, but I know it’s hard to cheer for public figures who earn cool titles like “edgy” and “exotic” when they rock fashions that don’t belong to them. Especially because there are still sisters out there who are being fired for their locs and Afros, and little kids being punished for speaking their native tongues in American schools. The next time you want to defend an appropriator or downplay appropriation’s negative effects, don’t drag my weave into it. In case you haven’t heard it before, it’s mine because I bought it.