In recent years, the controversy surrounding braids and braided hair has become a topic of heated discussion. While to some people they seem like just a hairstyle, others feel that it is part of their culture and tradition and that having hair braided in a particular style without belonging to a certain culture is an example of cultural appropriation.
In fact, braids have been around for thousands of years and have appeared across cultures and societies – no one group of people can claim that braids belong to them.
The oldest evidence of hair braiding goes back about 30,000 years: the Venus of Willendorf, a female figurine estimated to have been made around 28,000 – 25,000 BCE, is depicted with braids in its hair.
By the Bronze and Iron Age (1200 – 500BC), many people in Asia Minor, Caucasus, the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Near East are depicted in art with braided hair or beards. In some regions, braids were a means of communication and social stratification. Specific patterns could determine which tribe a person belonged to and also indicate a person’s age, marital status, wealth, power, and religion.
This is not to say, however, that braids are universal to the aforementioned regions. Braided hair and beards were depicted continuously in archaeological discoveries of the Vikings and were part of one’s spiritual practice in the Native American tradition. Medieval European society promoted modesty and it was socially unacceptable for women to have their hair exposed and loose in public, and therefore they wore it in thick, beautiful braids that were usually pinned to their heads to keep their headpieces in place.
Ultimately, braids are universal – but the problem is not in the actual art. The problem lies in the discrimination people of color have faced for doing their hair in certain braided styles, while white women and men are celebrated and emulated when they embrace and claim the exact same hairstyles.
Women with African heritage generally have more a more kinky hair texture, and therefore braids were used to protect and maintain their hair. But for hundreds of years, they were told that they weren’t beautiful, intelligent, or worthy and that their culture had no value. Following the abolition of slavery and the beginnings of racial segregation in America, black people were told that the only way they could be recognized, respected and treated differently than their enslaved ancestors were if they adopted European culture and standards of beauty. As a result, many black people began to conform to Western culture in order to get good jobs, be socially accepted and be treated as equals, including using harsh and damaging chemicals in their hair to straighten it.
It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement that many black people began to embrace their culture and heritage once again.
African hair is a political statement and symbol of black pride, so to refer to it as ‘just a hairstyle‘ is deeply insulting. For years, African hairstyles were criticized and condemned and only appreciated when white women embraced them. These white women are called ‘trailblazers’, ‘trendy’ and ‘funky’ – words that would never have been used to describe a black woman wearing her hair in a similar fashion, who would instead have been described as ‘ghetto’ or ‘ratchet’. There have also been instances of black men and women losing their jobs or being kicked out of schools due to negative bias and racism.
All ethnic minorities have endured their cultural and traditional clothes, hairstyles and accessories being criticized and mocked by the West, only until the very same things are suddenly fashionable and trendy and begin popping up on catwalks and magazines everywhere.
Music festivals are havens for cultural appropriation, with henna tattoos, bindis, feathered headpieces and accessories, braids, and nose rings being described as ‘festival fashion’ – all things that were at some point criticized by the West, seeming to say that certain clothes, accessories, and hairstyles are only acceptable when a white woman is seen wearing them.
But these things aren’t just ‘fashionable’ or ‘trendy’ – they are parts of certain cultures that the West tried to erase for years, while now attempting to take credit for their sudden popularity and aesthetic appeal.
Fashion is forever changing and its influences come from all around. Hair braids are universal and immortal, but white people should be aware of why some people of color might feel sensitive about them, and not pretend that they are the innovators of something that has been around for hundreds of years and that their ancestors tried so hard and long to oppress and erase.