; ; ; 8 May 2017

A Discussion of Black Hairstyles

Popular Culture vs. Cultural Appropriation by Izzy Rhodes

The black body and black identity has been commercialized across the United States and Britain for centuries. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, Africans were taken against their will by white slave traders in the process defined as the Atlantic slave trade. The history of black commodification and appropriation of black labour and bodies stretches back over 500 years, and still remains present today. Sociologist, Steven Dubin, addresses this concept using evidence in nineteenth and twentieth century material culture in his text Symbolic Slavery: Black Representations in Popular Culture. He discusses the compartmentalization the black identity through evidence of white-developed stereotypes in material culture. Although his focus is on mass-produced utilitarian objects such as the ‘Aunt Jemima Cookie Jar’ and an abundance of like-objects in the form of minstrel characters, the question he poses is an important one: “how have blacks and other minority groups been kept in symbolic servitude by the repetition of particular images?” [1]

To link the ideas of servitude and appropriation, it is necessary to lay out a definition of what it means when white popular culture capitalises on oppressed identities. Professor of Law, Susan Scafidi, defines cultural appropriation as

“taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, and cultural expressions or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission […] It’s most harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive”. [2]

The recent adoption of black hairstyles – such as cane row and dreadlocks – in contemporary popular culture is a prominent example of white assumptions of power towards the original politicisation over black identity. The British Art historian, Kobena Mercer, introduces this issue in particular by stating that black hairstyles

“were never just natural, waiting to be found: they were stylistically cultivated and politically constructed in a particular historical moment as part of a strategic contestation of white dominance and the cultural power of whiteness.” [3]

Historically, black hairstyles in the west were cultivated from movements towards black self-love and reclamation of identity from the hands of white beauty norms, supremacist ideologies, and cultural ideals. Popular cultural appropriations on the heads of white youth outrightly disconnect the symbolic importance of black identity politics. The example of the ‘festival look’ of loose cane rows, turns methods of black self-identification and celebration into temporary statements of white of ‘style’ and ‘individualism’. This dissociates powerful statements about what it means to embrace the natural black ‘bad hair’ associated with “woolly” or “tough”textures. [4] White youth culture embraces their already comparatively “straight, not too curly, not too kinky” [5] hair with very little if any, regard for the political and cultural history of such hairstyles. Additionally, the historical element of straightening of black hair, as Mercer comments, “suggested resemblance to white people’s hair,” [6] contextualises this combination of European hair appropriating cane row as one that is another form of ‘symbolic servitude’ [7] black identity is readily available, exclusively, for white consumption.

The cane row and dreadlock, “in their historical contexts[…] counter-politicized the signifier of ethnic devalorization, redefining blackness as a positive attribute. But[…] within a relatively short period, both styles became rapidly politicized and, with varying degrees of resistance, both were incorporated into mainstream fashions in the dominant culture”. [8] By no means does this mean that all those with European hair who have used these styles mean to do so with a racialized intent. However, the condemnation of the naivety towards compartmentalising historically oppressed cultures, remains to be brought into the public sphere with as much vigor as this form of cultural appropriation was in the first place. Again, this theme of dominance encourages us to reassess how white society has been able to maintain monopoly and control over the black body through compartmentalizing, decontextualizing, and capitalizing on portions of the black identity. This, of course, does not stop with black physicality – black artistic cultures such as dance and jazz are also examples of historically muted black expression.

Invisible western ideologies of white superiority and black inferiority, or fear, are relentlessly ignored by white culture. When white people choose to wear cane row or to develop dreadlocks, they take “bits from one place and [put] them into another to create a new meaning”. [9] As illustrated, this ‘bricolage’ of white identity in the example of black hairstyling, negates it as a political act.“The ‘naturalness’ of the Afro consisted in its rejection both of straightened styles and of short haircuts”. [10] What the Black Panthers did for black identity was bring the Afro style directly into the political sphere. By pairing the power and the Afros of the Black Panthers in 1960s America, the hairstyle became a symbol of protest and pride. Although the hairstyle is seen as a ‘natural’ form, it requires vast amounts of care. Goldsmiths Professor of Anthropology, Emma Tarlo, looks at the importance of the Afro and Afro wig in black American and British communities in her book, Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair. She also notes the importance of Kobena Mercer’s work on black hair and style politics, noting that

“[he] pointed out that the two hairstyles most associated  with a return to African roots – the Afro and dreadlocks – did not in fact have their roots in Africa but in black confrontations with racism outside the continent.” [11]

To demonstrate the idea of white entitlement, whether conscious or not, over the black identity, it is worth thinking about the invasive action of touching Afro hair, either without permission, or with racialized fascination. To compare the actions of appropriating a style against with the physicality of touching a black person’s Afro, highlights the politicized and racialized nature the two actions in themselves. Would we ask to touch the blonde hair of a white person to feel its texture? Extremely unlikely. The importance of acknowledging the relative racial positionings with regards to black hair needs to be encouraged and addressed within white popular culture.

Appropriating hairstyles – historically curated as forms of racialized protest – takes credit for a style whilst simultaneously decontextualizing the importance of black hair identity. These material trends have recently become tropes in popular youth culture. We can use Dubin’s concept of ‘symbolic servitude’ to point out what youth culture is doing by reinterpreting the black identity. The overriding power of dominant, white, popular culture, changes the meaning of the materiality of black hairstyles, and once again removes the voices of the marginalized from popular discourse. With the rise of A-list celebrities critiquing the actions of those who culturally appropriate black styles, there are also those who defend appropriation by claiming the rhetoric that ‘flattery is the greatest form of compliment’. These two diverging arguments in popular culture also beg the popularization of historical information to relay the foundations of popular culture to critique the styles’ culturally external use.

So with the historical information available to the youths criticized for culturally appropriating in this way, will it ever be possible accept the reformulation of black style as a celebration/appreciation of black culture? Is this a way to renew the ‘self’ by ‘recycling’ certain material aesthetics on new, entitled bodies? Or will it simply remain another institutional form of disregard for black history, style and political action?

Dubin, Steven C. ‘Symbolic Slavery: Black Representations in Popular Culture’, Social Problems. 34. 2 (1987), 123.
Scafidi, Susan. quoted by Kareem Nittle, Nadra. ‘What Is Cultural Appropriation and Why Is It Wrong?’, 14 November. 2016. Web. <http://racerelations.about.com/od/diversitymatters/fl/What-Is-Cultural-Appropriation-and-Why-Is-It-Wrong.htm>, [accessed 3 February. 2017].
Mercer, Kobena. ‘Black Hair/Style Politics’, New Formations. 3 (1987). <http://banmarchive.org.uk/collections/newformations/03_33.pdf> [accessed 25 February. 2017], 40.
Mercer, Kobena. ‘Black Hair/Style Politics’, New Formations. 3 (1987), 35.
Mercer, Kobena. ‘Black Hair/Style Politics’, New Formations. 3 (1987), 35.
Mercer, Kobena. ‘Black Hair/Style Politics’, New Formations. 3 (1987), 47.
Dubin, ‘Symbolic Slavery’, Social Problems. 34. 2 (1987), 123.
Mercer, Kobena. ‘Black Hair/Style Politics’, New Formations. 3 (1987), 37.
Caroline Evans, ‘Dreams That Only Monday Can Buy… Or, The Shy Tribe in Flight from Discourse’, The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture. 1. 2 (1997), 173.
 Caroline Evans, ‘Dreams That Only Monday Can Buy’, The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture. 1. 2 (1997), 38.
Tarlo, Emma. Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair. (London: Oneworld Publications. 2016),147.

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