When I was five-years-old, unsurprisingly, I got my first case of ‘the nits’. This isn’t a particularly dramatic or surprising childhood experience, but when it your mum already spends an average of 2 hours a day combing your hair with a ‘fat-tooth-comb’, nit combs were clearly going to be impossible. Cainrows were the solution my mother settled on: tight and thin plaits that went across my head, somewhat resembling rows of corn or cain (hence the name). They would expose my surprisingly white scalp, making hair searches particularly efficient for when my mum had received yet another letter about my school’s latest infestation.
This marks the beginning of my hair story, which has defined my relationship with fashion, race and my peers for most of my life thus far. From the age of five my hair was subject to the Sunday ritual: sitting in front of my mum, watching either Roots or the EastEnders omnibus, I tried not to flinch, but inevitably teared up as my mum intricately plaited my hair. If you’ve never had cainrows let me tell you this: it bloody hurts. But, at the time it was the most manageable way of dealing with my natural hair. I would go to school from Monday to Friday with my plaits greased and neat thanks to my nifty little doorag, then on Saturday it would be my special treat to let my hair out, wild, free and remarkably frizzy. Although practical, and very common within the black community, cainrows at this point had yet to attain their modern status as ‘urban’ and ‘cool’ through appropriation by the likes of Kylie Jenner.
They would be described as ‘greasy’, ‘worms’ and I felt like they made me look very alien-esque. In a sense they were ‘alien’—separate and distinct from the white beauty standards that dominate fashion and the media. At the time I didn’t really mind—nine-year-old me was fine being weird and ‘unattractive’—and it was only when my Caucasian friends went on holiday and came back with their tight ‘plaits’ from the beaches of Spain or the Caribbean, that I began to notice the double standard. Confused, I started to wonder why anyone would choose to have cainrows: clear evidence that even I was beginning to distinguish between acceptable white beauty ideals and my own hair. My friend’s plaits were complimented as ‘summery’ and ‘exotic’, whilst mine made me less attractive and less feminine.
Yet I didn’t object, it felt normal to conform. I stared at black celebrities like Beyoncé and dreamed of weaves and straight blonde locks—black activism had not yet become a capitalist tool. So when I moved to secondary school I made a stand by saying “Mum, I want to straighten my hair”. My dad was particularly upset, having loved my curls and not understanding the social pressure to conform to a predominantly white society, which he was still very much a part of. My mum had a confusing response, partly hurt by the rejection of my ‘blackness’, but also understanding, being herself a black woman who, in truth, had had it a lot worse than me in terms of racist experiences and social pressure. For my part, well I just wanted to be ‘pretty’.
My adolescence became characterised by the smell of burnt hair, relaxer and using plastic bags to shield my singed locks from the rain. From the ages of 11 to 16 I had my first kiss, my first boyfriend and even began to feel a little attractive. Yet, whilst I started conforming to the beauty ideals presented by the likes of Teen Vogue, Barbie and Tumblr, the rest of the world was becoming obsessed with black culture. Celebrities like Ke$ha, Cheryl Cole and Kim Kardashian all began to wear their hair in the same cainrow style that had caused me so much strife as a child. Yet people loved it—these celebrities weren’t ‘alien’ or ‘other’, but were rather simply making a fashion statement: a statement which ‘normalised’ and ‘celebrated’ this traditionally black hair style.
Forgive me for not being particularly grateful. White people making black culture palatable does nothing for people of colour; it does not stop black women being viewed as ‘undateable’ or ‘unattractive’ when exposing their natural hair. Appropriation simply uses our culture as a prop to be used when it pleases the privileged—whilst Kim can take out her cainrows after the summer, we cannot simply remove our blackness when the fad passes. Some, usually privileged and unaffected Caucasians, refer to those who protest against cultural appropriation in fashion as ‘lefty snowflakes’ who are overreacting.
Yet, what recent activities show is that the appropriation of culture as a fashion statement inevitably leads to the seizure of that culture’s political movements. I do not find it surprising that Kendall Jenner, the sister of well-known appropriator Kylie Jenner, was a part of the profoundly racist Pepsi advert, which was clearly based around the Black Lives Matter protests. When the privileged feel that they can use your culture as a tool for attaining the title of ‘Best Dressed at Coachella’, what is to stop corporations from stealing your cultural politics to earn more money whilst being praised as ‘liberal’?
Yet even I am privileged: my mixed-race skin tone has made me more acceptable to the white eye than my fellow black peers. My curls will never be judged as harshly as my mum’s coarser afro, and when men say they can’t see themselves dating a “black girl” I
am usually excluded from the category. Perhaps this is why throughout most of my teen years I didn’t mind conforming. At least I could conform. I have always wondered whether Beyoncé has felt similarly—growing up she was my beauty idol. Now, she is a reminder that I must always check my privilege. Many would crucify me for criticising Queen B, but she is a prime example of the capitalist appropriation of black activism. In ‘Formation’ she sings “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros” yet her attempt to validate hair like mine comes a little too late after all those years in primary school when I literally thought she was blonde.
I cannot shake the feeling that Beyoncé herself has fallen into the ‘its-cool-to-be-ablack-activist-trope’. This particularly hit home when I realised that Beyoncé herself has been a perpetrator of black face in the French fashion magazine L’Officiel Paris; a reminder that black on black oppression is real. Yet, whilst I am critical of Beyoncé, ultimately I cannot blame her. I cannot blame any black, mixed or otherwise ethnic woman from falling victim to the white beauty standards that are so embedded in society.
I can only hope that collectively we begin to appreciate our beauty without feeling the need to conform. Fashion and music, like most other industries in the world, are not post-racial. Skin lightening creams continue to be sold and adored by many of Africa and Asia’s female population. Doorags continue to be associated with thugs and gangsters when worn by black men, but are fashionable when worn by Kylie Jenner. It is still seen as normal for white women to get hair extensions, but ‘ghetto’ when a black girl gets a weave.
Most industries continue to downplay the subtle but prevailing racism that can be seen in these forms of cultural appropriation. The concept that we live in a ‘world without race’ is continually pushed, but frankly far from true. We are all victims of beauty standards, but what is significantly different about cultural appropriation, is that our ethnicity and culture is not something we can change.
As for me, particularly in Oxford, I still fall victim to the pressure to conform. Despite continuing to wear my hair in its natural kinky glory, it is still rare that I will go to a ball or a formal interview without it being straightened. I have refused to wear my hair in cainrows since my childhood and I only ever wear my doorag to bed, despite having days where my hair could really use some protection from the elements.
Yet when I look in the mirror I no longer cringe at my curls and wish I had the hair of my white friends. I am sure that movements like #blackgirlmagic and the active effort of BME celebrities such as Zendaya, Zoe Kravitz and even Beyonce (despite her questionable motives) have definitely aided my own, and others, acceptance of their natural beauty.
However the fight is far from over: we must not allow our cultural image to become a trend of the past, whilst the struggles of ethnic minorities continue in silence.