Yes, if a white person wears box braids, then they are likely to be accused of cultural appropriation.
This is because the hairstyle has deep roots in the cultures of enslaved people and black people who wear them these days often wear them as an expression of cultural identity.
For white people to adopt this hairstyle as part of a trend is seen as inappropriately using a minority culture’s symbologywithout being a true member of the culture. White people can wear ‘cool’ looks of disenfranchised people for a night then take those looks off the next day; while disenfranchised people don’t have the choice to switch between symbology so easily.
There are plenty of other hairstyles out there that don’t have as strong a cultural or historical tie to black people, and as such, if you are Caucasian and considering box braids, then you might want to try out a different hairstyle to avoid these accusations!
What Are Box Braids?
Box braids are a type of hairstyle which is predominantly worn by African people and the African diaspora.
One of the main benefits of box braids is the fact that when someone wears them, they can then keep the hairstyle in for several weeks at a time and won’t need to constantly be re-doing it.
For those with kinky locks, a lot more time and effort often needs to go into hairstyling, making this an incredibly important time-saver – something which white women never really need to consider.
Box braids can give hair time to rest and focus on growth, and usually consists of square-shaped hair divisions. This is not a hairstyle which is necessary for white women to wear and replicate, and in fact by doing so, they can perpetrate this form of cultural appropriation.
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History of Box Braids
The history of box braids dates back almost three millennia, when pre-colonization African tribes would use braids as a way of showing off their wealth, personality, and social status.
In the following centuries, some slaves would even use the hairstyle as a means of survival in the form of detailed braids designs emulating a map which could then lead them to freedom. They would depict how many roads would need to be walked or specific places to meet people to then escape.
African-American women would try their best to keep their braided hairstyles and hold onto their ancestral traditions, but in 1865 during Emancipation, there grew a longing to leave all memories of such a difficult period behind.
Black women moved to cities such as New York and Chicago and took on some of the few jobs available to them (such as becoming maids), and during that time, their braids became meticulously synonymous with backwardness.
In order to fit in with the rest of society, they would be forced to chemically straighten their plaits and cornrows and hide the truest parts of themselves. It was a while before anything would change for the better.
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Modern-Day Box Braids
Nowadays, box braids are a symbol of self-love and ancestral connection, and are more as important to black women as ever. They represent a sense of freedom and self-expression as they return to their original owners.
However, with many black women reclaiming their rights to this hairstyle, box braids have almost become a fashion trend. White celebrities such as Kylie Jenner have worn the hairstyle without any backlash, whilst black women can face incredible backlash for it.
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Reasons Not to Wear Box Braids
If you are not of African heritage and wear box braids, you may be accused of cultural appropriation for the following reasons:
- After emancipation, many black people stopped wearing the braids out of a sense of shame and mourning. White people didn’t have to go through the trauma of breaking ties with their cultural symbology in the same way.
- The braids are worn as a way for African women to re-claim a cultural symbol that was banned or frowned upon for decades.
- The braids are seen as a symbol of African culture.
- It may add to a history of colonialization where white people would take from black people without due credit or asking for permission.
- It trivializes the identity, symbology, and cultural pride of black people.
- White people can wear ‘cool’ looks of disenfranchised people for a night then take those looks off the next day; while disenfranchised people don’t have the choice to switch between symbology so easily.
Other Hairstyles to Avoid
Braided Hairstyles Generally Considered Appropriate For Anyone
- French Braids
- Dutch Braids
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Box braids are one of the multiple hairstyles that are considered inappropriate for non-black people to wear. In wearing them, you may be disrespecting an entire culture and showing lack of appreciation for the culture’s unique identity and symbology.
Whether or not you agree with the points above about why box braids are cultural appropriation, there are still practical consequences of wearing box braids as a white person. Primarily, you are very likely to attract negative feedback and you may cause offense. Therefore, regardless of your political stance on the issue, most non-black people will choose not to wear box braids out of respect (and to avoid needless conflict).
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.