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Six non-black women on why they wear box braids despite the controversy

TextHabi Diallo

Even with countless conversations around cultural appropriation, the hairstyle is still popular among women it’s not naturally for

Native American, Mexican, and Vietnamese beauty YouTuber Nikita Dragun was recently accused of cultural appropriation after wearing long grey box braids to the VFiles runway show. Straight after her appearance at New York Fashion Week SS20, people were quick to call her out online. 

“I would just like to take this moment to show my love and appreciation for all the gorgeous black women in my life and also to those that follow me. I was inspired to do this box braid wig because I find it so beautiful,” says Dragun in defence of her hair in an Instagram post. “Too often there’s a double standard when another person takes inspiration from black culture. Suddenly it’s a new trend or it’s renamed to be something else.”

One of the main issues most have with cultural appropriation is the disregard of the culture a style belongs to, alongside the suggestion it is a fresh and brand new concept. While Dragun did make it clear that she takes no responsibility for the creation of the style, many people highlighted that despite her intention, she still benefited from avoiding the prejudice that comes with braids, due to her race. 

In her Instagram story, Dragun points out that braids are also an important part of Native American culture. However, the fact that she views wearing box braids as borrowing from black culture, whilst still claiming she understands the significance a hairstyle can have, leads one to ask, if the roles were reversed, would she be if okay with aspects of her culture being ‘borrowed’?

Regardless of the public controversy every time – Kim Kardashian is a repeat offender – a number of non-white women are still wearing box braids. Here we explore why.

Diving deep into the abyss of three and a half million Instagram posts hashtagged ‘box braids’ lead to the discovery of a hairdresser’s page filled entirely of white women sporting braids. The owner of the account turned out to be a Slovakian teenager named Timea, who turned her admiration of the hairstyle into a part-time job. The young hairstylist does box braids several times a week during the summer on women with similar straight European hair to her.

“I started braiding hair in August 2017 when I was 13 because I really like braids. I wanted them but there was no one who could do them in Slovakia,” the 15-year-old explains. “If I wanted someone else to do it, I’d have to go really far away so I just learned how to do braids on my own head. I love that I can do everything I want with braids, it is like painting or doing make-up for me.” 

When asked whether she believes that non-black women wearing braids is cultural appropriation, Timea replies, “Oh I don’t know... yes it was for black people but why not for us too? I can do with my hair what I want and wear what I like.”

Katie, a 19-year-old student from Leeds with long black box braids, sees “no colour” when it comes to hairstyles. “I wear box braids because I like them, it’s really that simple. I can only keep them in for a week or my hair gets greasy but I don’t mind because I only wear them for parties,” she says. “Sometimes I get looks from people but no one has ever said anything to me. I wouldn’t care if they did. It’s my hair, I can decide how it looks. How can a (type of) person own a hairstyle? No real sense in that.”

“Sometimes I get looks from people but no one has ever said anything to me. I wouldn’t care if they did. It’s my hair, I can decide how it looks. How can a (type of) person own a hairstyle?” – Katie 

Similar to Dragun, getting box braids done is an ode to black women for British Hackey native Sarah. “I have grown up with black people my whole life and have always appreciated black culture. Therefore I decided to do my hair in this way to show my appreciation for the culture, rather than to appropriate it,” she shares. “Braids are something that I’ve always admired about my close friends and always wanted. I understand the history behind them so I don’t think there’s a problem with it.”

Box braids may have become popular within mainstream culture via Janet Jackson’s Poetic Justice braids in the early 90s, but the history of box braids can be traced back to almost three millennia ago. It is said that pre-colonialism, African tribes used braids as a means of reflecting one’s wealth, status and personality. In the centuries that followed, the hairstyle was utilised as a means of survival for slaves in the Carribean, who would create detailed braid designs to emulate a map which would lead them to potential freedom.

“I never realised there was a problem with it and didn’t realise it’s classified as cultural appropriation, it’s just hair,” says Dominika, a Polish student who gravitated toward the style naturally. “I’ve always been fascinated by small braids so I get them done because I love the way my hair looks when I get them taken out. I have dead straight hair, so it never gets that wavy.” 

A British woman (who didn’t want to be named) explains that her decision to get box braids is due to convenience, a common reason among black women as well. “When my hair is in braids, I haven’t got to worry about getting up and getting ready. Actually, it’s the main reason I started getting them. I saw how easy it was to save time in the morning, for my friends who would wear braids, and I wanted my mornings to be that effortless.”

“I have grown up with black people my whole life and have always appreciated black culture. Therefore I decided to do my hair in this way to show my appreciation for the culture, rather than to appropriate it” – Sarah

Only a quarter of the non-black women contacted about this agreed to give their opinion. Could it be that some of them understand the underlying issues with their actions and are unable to justify their choices? “I don’t believe it’s cultural appropriation if women of colour wear blonde wigs. Beyoncé wears them, doesn’t she?” a nameless white woman volunteers.

London-based clinical psychologist Dr Abigael San has come to the conclusion that non-black women would probably stop wearing box braids if they were, essentially, more ‘woke’. “If people were more aware of the history, the majority of people, I imagine, would be more respectful. I come across this self-focused aspect of human nature all the time and people make enormous assumptions and interpretations of the impact of them on someone else. The type of person who would be engaging in black fashion, who isn’t black, who’s reasoning is to make a kind statement, is not going to want to cause offence.”

When speaking to a group of black women, who all wear or have worn box braids, about the upsurge of white women in braids, Asia voices the general consensus. “Honestly, it feels like an insult, especially when you see black girls frequently being called ‘ghetto’ for wearing them. It’s like that part of our culture is used to denigrate us, while non-black people with their naturally straight hair try it as a fun and funky hairstyle. I’m like: ‘Stop reducing it to ‘fashion’.”

The double standard this narrative creates makes it more difficult to understand whether it is even possible to wear braids, as a non-black person, without culturally appropriating. It is impossible to decide who should or shouldn’t be allowed to wear braids but as a society, we must become more conscious and sensitive to the history of braids, its origins and the context in which they are used today. One group of people shouldn’t be vilified, while another is praised for doing the same thing.  

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