While cornrows are considered cultural appropriation, French braids are generally acceptable. This is because they are not a historical style of a single cultural minority group.
While there is a long history of French braids in northern Africa, the style has also been common in Greece, China, and the West for many centuries.
As a result, French braids are not generally considered culturally offensive.
However, it’s advisable for non-black people not to wear cornrows due to their history – they were a special style used by African slaves on Sundays when they would go to church.
The Origin of French Braids
A French braid is just like a regular braid that also has three strands interlocked with each other, except that it starts from the head, instead of the nape.
The French braid has been around for a long time in the hairstyling world to the point that any written traces of its origin are hard to verify.
One thing is certain: the French braid, despite its name, didn’t originate from France!
Who Were the First to Wear French Braids?
The origin of French braids is unclear, but there are three cultures where these braids could have originated.
1. African (North)
Africans have been braiding their hair for thousands of years. Rock art depicting women with rowed braids in the mountain range of Tassili n’Ajjer in Algeria can support this fact.
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Kouros statue is one of the first human-figure statues to be sculpted in Attica, Greece. The statue is in the shape of a man with braided hair.
Aside from the African and Greek possible origins, some also speculate that the women of the Song Dynasty in China might be the first to wear French braids.
Out of the three cultures, North Africa’s rock art is the earliest depiction. However, whether the Africans were the ones who first came up with the French braid variation is uncertain.
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Why Is it Called French Braid?
The 1871 short story from Arthur’s Home Magazine is to blame for the name “French braid,” despite the fact that the hairstyle has nothing to do with France.
In the story, a line from the husband goes, “Hurry up and put on that new cashmere I sent you. And do up your hair in that new French braid.”
From there, the French braid took its name. It’s also not news to us that a lot of fancy and sophisticated things are linked to France, most likely due to its high society image, particularly in fashion.
Why Are French Braids Not Cultural Appropriation?
Cultural appropriation happens when a person from one culture exploits a practice, item, or other elements of another culture.
Not acknowledging a cultural element’s roots and claiming ownership of it is also cultural appropriation.
Braids, in general, have deep African roots, but just like other elements of fashion, they evolved throughout time. That’s why not all braid variations can be traced back to the same roots.
This being said, the French braid isn’t directly identified as a possession or trademark of just one culture. Its origins are unclear and as of now, not one culture heavily claims it as theirs.
In present times, French braids are well-loved and still widely worn by people everywhere. Based on this, we can assume that they’re not included in the list of culturally offensive braid styles.
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Braids and Cultural Appropriation
The dark history of oppression and theft of black people reflects why a style of braids called cornrows are a topic of great cultural sensitivity.
Before Africans were subjected to slavery, the braided hairstyle was a huge indicator of their identity.
One look at a person’s hairstyle and Africans would know where he’s from, what his social or marital status was, and other important personal information.
However, during the period of slavery, African people didn’t have the materials and resources needed to take care of their hair. Most of the men just shaved their hair, while the women used head rags to protect their hair from the sun when they were out doing hard labor.
Sunday was a special day, though, because they would attend church and needed to dress nicely. So, it became the day when they would take care of their hair.
In a sense, doing this once a week was a form of liberation. That’s why cornrow hairstyles play a significant role in their culture.
Cornrows: Braids’ Center of Culture Appropriation
Cornrows are one of the most common braided hairstyles for which people are called out for cultural appropriation.
This hairstyle dates back to the period of slavery when Africans needed a way to wear their hair in a protective hairstyle for a week.
What’s more, during the great migration, black people moving from the South to America’s northern cities had to conform to American standards to fit in.
One of those standards meant that they couldn’t style their hair in “Black” hairstyles.
Despite this, in the 1979 movie “10”, actress Bo Derek came out on the big screen with cornrow braids.
This is when the hairstyle gained popularity among white people, and most likely, the first instance of cultural appropriation when it comes to hair braids.
Even to this day, the appropriation of cornrows and other hairstyles is still happening. Just recently, a celebrity came under fire for calling cornrows Bo Derek braids and boxer braids.
French braids are among the hairstyles that don’t belong to one particular culture or race that was subjected to discrimination. So you can wear them as you wish.
What’s important is to understand the reality of cultural appropriation. Imagine how a race had to conform to standards and set aside tradition, only to see later on that this tradition, previously dubbed as improper, is praised once used by another race.
To this day, Black people are often treated unfairly or called unprofessional when they wear braided hair at work. Non-black celebrities, on the other hand, are praised on social media for wearing cornrows, even if they’re unaware of the cultural significance of the hairstyle.
Fortunately, many people are starting to educate themselves about cultural sensitivity and call out anyone who carelessly offends a certain culture. This is a significant step towards a world with no racial discrimination and cultural appropriation.
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.