The History Of Banning Black Hair

There’s been a lot of talk over the appropriation of black hairstyles in recent months.

It started with Curly Nikki’s ill-advised decision to host a white woman to talk about her “natural” transition, and culminated with an utterly tone-deaf L.A Times article that not only credited Bo Derek for cornrows, but also continued on to deride their roots in black American history.

It seemed, to black women, that these spaces we made for ourselves were no longer ours, and that these styles we’d created for our hair would be credited to--and celebrated--on any woman who wore them without the audacity of being black while doing so.

There would be no problem with this if we lived in a just society where all cultures were treated with equal respect. But we don’t and, to be frank, never have. That’s what makes one of the primary defenses of this type of appropriation--that people outside of a minority culture would only like to show their appreciation through imitation--so subconsciously insidious: It positions the restructuring of minority spaces and cultures for consumption by the majority as something that we should be flattered by. In truth, it’s more about us being slowly elbowed out of our own spaces and aesthetics, and back into a world that displays open contempt for everything we create or do, so long as we’re the ones partaking in it.

When I voice my irritation with cultural appropriation, I can only speak authoritatively from my experiences as a black woman with deeply Afro-textured hair. But it’s borne from the continued sting of having the painful realities of what natural hair means to black women swept under the rug, as though it’s never had consequences for us, and as though it’s only a hairstyle.

It’s having our hair and cultural affects decontextualized to nothing but fashion when embracing them carries much heavier tolls for us as black women.

This may sound dramatic on its face, but the banning of unaltered black hair from public view, schools, and workspaces has had a long precedent in this country, one that continues to this day.

A particularly glaring example were what are now known as the Tignon laws, signed into being by Esteban Rodriguez Miró, who was the governor of the then Spanish colony of Louisiana. It was a punitive law, of sorts: Black and multiracial women of African ancestry in the colony held a level of status and conspicuous displays of wealth that rivaled the “ladies” of the time.

Governor Miró sought to uphold visually denoting these women’s lower social stature by signing into a law a mandate that required all women of African descent to cover their hair with a Tignon, or a plain headwrap, to hide their increasingly ornate hairstyles. This particular initiative wound up failing spectacularly, as the women took to wearing brightly colored and flashily gathered Tignons that in no way served to diminish their public presence. Yet the crux of the issue remained: Black hair was seen as so threatening that it demanded literal, legal banning from public view for the supposed good of society.

The theme of deeming afro-textured hair on black women unfit for public exposure continues on to the present day, the most recent and egregious example being the hair regulations of the United States Army that had a disproportionate effect on black women with afro-textured hair, to say nothing of women who are told to cut off their hair to look professional in the workplace.

Black women don’t need to know every codified detail of history, or every specific example of workplace discrimination, to understand how stigmatized our hair is in broader society. It seeps into our minds from how we’re portrayed in ads and television, to how we see precious few of us in positions of power wearing their hair as it naturally grows.

It’s for this reason that the “appreciation” from those who don’t live these realities, and don’t face these consequences--people who will be and are celebrated for doing things that we’re chastised, fired and legally bound from doing--feels substantially less appreciative.

I don’t mean at all to say that there aren’t ways to appreciate cultures that aren’t your own without being grossly appropriative. If your appreciation actively involves the people whose culture you enjoy, and you’re actually learning about that culture and its historical nuances in the process, then it’s a good step toward bridging the wide cultural gaps that currently plague our society.

To try to decontextualize your “appreciation” from the world within which it currently resides, however, is to insultingly ignore the very people from whom you’re borrowing your new image. All in all, the best way to end the sting of cultural appropriation is to work together toward a world where different cultures are valued equally enough that borrowing from each other doesn’t carry such heavy social weight.

  • What do you think? Have you ever been interested in trying out another culture’s aesthetic?
  • Have you ever been made fun of for expressing your own cultural heritage?