As September came to a close, an alarming number of media outlets—including Aol, PopSugar, College Candy, Kfor.com and more—were applauding the successor to the man bun: “man braids.” Long-haired gents across the country are relieving their top knots and letting their hair down to rock this trendy new ‘do, but what they might not realize is that those braids also go by another name: cornrows.
Hipster and high-fashion culture never fail in matters of cultural appropriation. In an article titled “Man Braids Are A Thing, and They’re Taking Over Instagram,” courtesy of The Huffington Post, author Madelyn Chung writes, “While the man braid isn’t exactly new (remember when Harry Styles donned the look last year, or when Jared Leto showed off his plaited hair at the 2015 Golden Globes?), the style is definitely making its way to the mainstream.” Lacking all historical context, the author fails to note that so-called man braids are simply a white male derivative of a style long worn by men of color.
While man braids are having a moment right now, this isn’t a gender-specific trend. Controversially, Valentino’s S/S 2016 show at Paris Fashion Week featured not only a slew of African tribal-inspired outfits, but also a band of female models—most of whom were white—rocking cornrowed hair. Described as “wild, tribal Africa” (as if the continent isn’t a conglomerate of 50+ countries), the show depicted racial ignorance at its finest—just eight out of 87 models were black.
What’s disconcerting about both man braids and Valentino’s cornrowed models is that these hairstyles are labeled as “trends,” thus ignoring their trans-historical origins, implying that the look will inevitably have an expiration date, and devaluing and commodifing those who’ve braided and cornrowed for centuries past and years to come.
Cornrows were birthed in Africa and the Caribbean and go by various names. In an interview with Refinery29, author of the blog AfroBella Patrice Grell Yursik explains, “In Trinidad, we call them ‘cane rows,’ because of slaves planting sugar cane.” Native Americans also braid their hair; plaited hair holds religious weight, and for many groups it must be cut when mourning the passing of a relative. Latinos wear the braided hairstyle, too.
What’s particularly problematic about white appropriation of braids and cornrows is that on white people, the look is considered fashionable; donning cornrows shows you keep up with current trends, and it’s socially acceptable to wear the look. But for African Americans and indigenous peoples, the inverse is true. External signifiers of race and culture—including hairstyles—have long been the cause of discrimination against people of color in America.
In September 2014, for example, a 5-year-old Native American student from Texas, Malachi Wilson, had to provide documentation of his Native American heritage to his school in order to be allowed to wear his hair long, as is his cultural practice, or else violate the school’s dress code. African American student Vanessa VanDyke similarly faced expulsion because her natural hair violated school dress code policy.
When we applaud fashion giants and white communities for their contemporary variations of cornrows, we neglect to acknowledge the stigma surrounding natural hair and hairstyles for people of color. A grasp on history and a solid understanding of racial politics in this country should be considered before you treat cultural attributes like a novelty.