I recently got asked by one of my white friends who just got cornrows if I thought it was cultural appropriation.
My response to her was that yes, if she wasn’t aware of the history behind them.
And then I realised how I didn’t know much about them either, so I had to do some research.
Recently, a black japanese student got segregated and discriminated against during his graduation ceremony for wearing cornrows. He was playing tribute to his black heritage and as a result got separated from the other children.
Cornrows are a traditional and popular hairstyle many black people chose to wear. It symbolises so much more than just aesthetics, but also heritage, community, and strength.
The term ‘cornrows’ is thought to have originated between the 16th and 19 centuries in colonial America. It was named after the agricultural fields where many enslaved people worked. In the Caribbean they are sometimes referred to as ‘Cornrows’, linking back to work in the sugar cane fields.
The style was also thought to be used as a communication medium amongst slaves.
A particular number of braids could be used to signal a meetup time or even to communicate escape routes from plantations. Slaves did this to avoid messages getting into the wrong hands and risk being caught escaping. African women also would braid rice and seeds into their cornrows before journeying.
Historically, it is also believed that different hairstyles symbolised social ranks.
The oldest known depictions of hairstyles that appear to be cornrows or braids are the statues known as the Venus of Brassempouy and the Venus of Willendorf, which date to 25,000-30,000 years ago and were found in modern day France and Austria.
Some depictions of women with cornrows have been found in Stone Age paintings in the Tassili Plateau of the Sahara. They have been dated as far back as 3000 B.C. Men and women in ancient Egypt wore cornrows adorned with gold thread and sometimes other delicacies.
Cornrows hold a cultural significance and sentimental value for people of African descent. In the recent past, they have been appropriated by many people who have no idea of the history behind them.
Cornrows were a part of tribal customs in Africa.
So how can we punish someone that is trying to pay tribute to such a beautiful history and yet celebrate celebrities when they perform cultural appropriation ?
The discrimination against cornrows is very common. In schools, workplaces, black people get discriminated against and segregated simply because of a hairstyle they decide to wear.
Cultural appropriation vs cultural appreciation
Appropriation is the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture. Often, black people and people of colour are oppressed and condemn for their culture and practices, but when white people decide to adopt them, without understanding the history or the cultural importance, it becomes cool.
Taking certain aspects that are originally from a less-dominant culture and using them in a way its members may find offensive, that’s also cultural appropriation
Wearing cornrows without showing any appreciation for their context or creators is cultural appropriation,
On Black people, cornrows are still often labelled as looking “unprofessional”, and yet white people wear them without experiencing the same problems that we may face.
Cultural appreciation, au contraire, is when an individual or community of people engages in the norms and traditions of another culture, while acknowledging where it comes from and celebrating it.
Celebrating African cornrows through high fashion can be positive, but the history behind the hairstyle needs to be acknowledged.