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How Come You Benefit From My Culture?

Yet I face the repercussions?

Words by Amiyah Golden

Imagine this… 

You’re looking at yourself in the mirror — grinning from ear to ear — admiring the hours and hours you just spent sitting in a salon chair with multiple hands tugging, pulling, and gripping at your scalp. You move your neck around, letting the tensed muscles finally decompress. You let out a sigh of relief, knowing the discomfort you just experienced was worthwhile.  

 

Box braids were your style of choice this time around, a protective hairstyle used to shield your natural hair against the varying elements, halt your weekly wash days for a few weeks, and connect you back to the culture you come from. You wear this style proud, feeling beautiful, an affinity to your community and less anxious about the time spent finding hairstyles for your 4C hair. 

 

You arrive at work the next day, ecstatic to show all your co-workers your new ‘do but instead you’re escorted to HR. You sit down — the joy from the day before now gone — and you’re instructed to remove the hair that you just sacrificed time and money for — or face possible termination. – 

 

Destiny Tompkins, New York 

 

Imagine this…

You’re preparing for one of the best days of your life — graduation. You wake up extra early, you lay out your clothes, and you watch the clock wind down. You remove the scarf you used to lay down your fresh retwist. You shudder at a flashback of the pain of the hairstylist separating your locs, but you snap back to the present, realizing that the intricate separation of your coils was all going to be worth it when you get to walk across the stage.

 

You arrive at graduation with the support of your family in the crowd. You mingle with your fellow classmates – only to be notified that you in fact would not be walking the stage today due to the length of your locs. 

 

DeAndre Arnold, Texas 

 

Imagine This…

The alarm buzzes, notifying you that it’s time to go to work. You wake up, and begin your morning routine: wash your face, brush your teeth, do you makeup and hair. You decide to brush your hair back into a neat bun for the day, using your Eco styler gel and a hard bristle brush to prevent any flyaways. You grab your silk scarf and wrap it tightly, keeping it on your head until you’re ready to go (further securing any possible frizz.) You arrive at work way ahead of time (per usual) and prepare yourself for the day. You do your work efficiently and proactively, but you’re distracted by the whispers and stares coming from your co-workers and manager. 

 

You wonder what all the murmur is about only to be informed that your natural hair was deemed unprofessional. You begin to realize this is your first time wearing your natural hair to the office since you got this job. You often stuck to wigs — for convenience’s sake — and the jet black, 20 inches of length that often swung behind your back (that was always met with sparkly eyes and compliments) wasn’t being adorned today. Those routine smiles turned into puzzled glares, and you catch word that your manager has compared your latest appearance to one of negligence, even though you always put much effort and pride into your daily appearance. The only difference was that you had chosen to grace the hair that grew out of your head today — just like everyone else in the office. The only difference was that you were Black. 

 

Imani Jackson, Louisiana 

 

I don’t use the phrase “imagine this” to immerse you as a reader into a place of hypotheticals, but for you to empathize with the ongoing reality that is … being Black in America. Aside from a plethora of issues that simply exist because of the color of my skin, it continues to funnel its way into our own self-expression, as a people. 

 

We all have the privilege of customizing our bodies like real-life Sims characters. If you want to change your style, you can. If you want to change your physique, you can. If you want to change your hair, you also have that right — and while this is such a cool feature of being a human with autonomy (and also a privilege in many instances), it is one that is conditional upon a “type” of person. 

 

We see this in the testimonies of Destiny Tompkins, a 19-year-old who was threatened with disciplinary action at her job at Banana Republic if she did not remove her box braids, which her manager deemed as “urban” and “unkempt.” And DeAndre Arnold who was met with an ultimatum by his school district to cut his locs or not attend one of the most monumental days of his life, graduation, because his hair length did not fit the school’s dress code. And Imani Jackson, a sales representative who was told by the owner of the company that her natural hair was “unacceptable,” “was sticking every which way” and that she “looks like she just rolls out of bed.” She was told she needed to wear her wig every day. 

 

These aren’t stories that exist in rare circumstances but happen more often than you think. 

 

As a Black woman, I can’t express how many times I’ve had to manipulate my 4C hair just to fit into a Eurocentric standard of acceptability.

 

The notion of my Black hair not being seen as “presentable” or “worthy” has subsisted since the days of dance recitals and cheer competitions as a young girl. You would think getting sew-ins or wigs would solve the luring pressure of assimilation, but it only continued to strengthen the ignorance of my white and white-adjacent counterparts. Those hairstyles also had parameters to them — no “loud” colors, no blonde, not super long, etc. When I was done damaging my hair to fit into these unattainable standards that I would never reach, I turned to cultural coiffures such as, box braids, cornrows, Locs, Bantu knots and other styles that would not only make me feel confident and connected to my Black lineage and culture but would safeguard my crown against temperamental Florida weather, aid in hair growth, and save me from stresses and anxieties that accompany my coils and curls. 

 

I’m not ashamed of my natural hair nor am I ashamed of the Kanekalon that I choose to weave into my own. It connects me to a history that has been stripped away from so many who hail from the African diaspora in America.  

 

The culture of Black America is so rich, perseverant and precious. It cannot be appreciated without talking about the systematic effects that come with simply partaking in the culture: loss of jobs, discrimination, bias, missed opportunities, etc. 

 

We know America as this huge melting pot of people, languages, religions, ideas and, ultimately, cultures. And while it’s a beautiful thing to get to share assorted customs and traditions with others, we have yet to break down the structured barriers that hold some cultures captive to judgment. 

 

To share culture is to enlighten, admire and appreciate from the perspective of a different lens.

 

Although, there is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation

 

The topic of cultural appropriation has been the center of some hot-button discourse in the last several years, and rightfully so, I think. 

 

While fragments of Black culture seem to be becoming more digestible and appealing, the caveat is that it only applies when white skin becomes the poster child.

 

Box braids, long nails, big lips, messy buns, baggy clothes are all fine… when they’re not worn by a Black person, that is.

 

This is not a sentiment I’m willing to argue, as I have seen it countless times with my own eyes. 

 

And I’m not one to mention the race card at every given inconvenience or when it’s not needed. But when people’s livelihoods are affected simply on the merit of genealogy, individualized expressiveness and customs it becomes a worrisome reality that regardless of one’s aptitude, it will never be good enough due to systematic prejudice. 

 

While everyone has a different take on what is considered “appropriation,” I think it’s important to note that the voices who are a part of said culture hold the most authority. 

 

While I as a Black woman think that those who aren’t Black shouldn’t parade around in culturally Black hairstyles, another Black individual could totally disagree and regard the belief as “not that deep” or “it’s just hair” and I come to challenge that notion. 

 

“It’s Just Hair” 

 

This statement simply isn’t true. 

 

Black hair unfortunately comes with a long history and that history includes a ton of sacrifice. 

It comes from a past of determination from white slave owners to strip Black people of their tribal culture and lineage. Black hair comes as the derivative to classify tribes based on status, wealth and ranking. Black hair comes with loaded shame that has taken us, as a people, generations to unlearn the hateful characteristics attributed to our hair — unattractive, dirty, unprofessional, gross and worse.

 

I could go on and on and there’s truly not enough room for me to inform you through this one article but I highly encourage you to read up on the history behind the past and present view of Black hair.

 

Black hair has never just been a means of expression for us, and I wish it could exist in that way. 

 

The Kardashians will never face the racial backlash from simply adorning cornrows. They will profit and get praise, even being credited as the masterminds behind this “new” hair trend. 

When cornrows were used as a form of communication amongst former slaves. The popularity of having big lips and a curvy figure is also now ascribed to the Kardashian dynasty as being the ones to initiate these features as aspirational and the norm but, I recall vivid moments of torment come into view for me as I remember being ridiculed for the same Black features I was born with. 

 

The inequity as a result of appropriation really comes into perspective when white or non-Black celebrities or influencers simply garnish wealth and accolades on behalf of a culture, they never were a part of nor had to face the mockery, termination, prejudice or even violence linked to being Black. 

 

I could focus on a multitude of aspects of Black culture that have been appropriated but for the sake of the  of this article, I urge you to take time to educate yourself on the injustices that occur as a consequence of ongoing systematic oppression, ignorance and chronic intolerance when it comes to Black people – woman, men, and children alike.

 

If you’re not Black and you’re thinking about rocking culturally traditional styles for fun or to be considered “edgy”, or to simply cosplay as a Black person – I hope you can accept the fact that you will still remain untouched by racial discrimination and your Black peer will never fully benefit from embracing the traditions instilled in them through bloodline and tenacity. Your contemporary has to weigh their options of getting a style that will protect their hair or face possible bigotry. 

 

With some progress being made such as the legislation of the CROWN Act.It points to a future of acceptance but, we as a society still have such a long way to go to continue to make strides to live in an equitable society. No one, regardless of race, sex, or gender should ever have to fear unemployment or punishment for simply existing in the skin and culture they were assigned and embrace.

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