We’ve all seen a lot (too much?) of Kendall Jenner recently. Her modeling career is blowing up– and with it, her, I guess, signature cornrows. This is a style that, when worn on black men and women, risks garnering unwanted, racialized attention and pernicious discrimination. I’m sure that Marcia Mitchell would have been relieved to skip all that chemical processing on her hair once in a while and sport braids for a modeling job or two. As a black woman in fashion, though, she is not afforded the luxury of letting her hair show the way it grows naturally out of her scalp. Print and editorial simply aren’t ready for that! But suddenly, when tight braids are seen on a white girl’s head, it’s fashion forward and edgy. Perhaps the worst part of Marie Claire’s inane fascination with Kendall’s hairstyle is that they hail it as something “new,” thereby invisibilizing and delegitimizing black women’s age-old contributions in hair. It suggests indifference at best (at worst, aversion to) black hair styles on black bodies and celebrates these styles when they are grafted onto white bodies. Whoever styled Kendall’s look in the teen vogue shoot I included was clearly referencing signifiers of blackness (the hair, the hoops, the gold chain… there is even a boom box placed next to her in another shot), but on a thin, white, young woman’s body, these coded symbols are stripped of their violently fraught history and sanitized into supposed novelty, context-free.
White artists stealing and profiting from black art is older than the Beatles, but discourses of calling out cultural appropriation publicly have only begun to gain a foothold in progressive media in very recent years. At this point it almost seems like we go through a routine every time Katy Perry gets on stage or a hopelessly misguided (or arrogantly unwilling to learn) white artist releases a new video that uses black women’s bodies as props. And while I love hearing from the powerful multitudes of voices that make up black twitter every time we inevitably see these problems arise in pop culture, I wonder why we are making such microscopic progress.
But back to hair. In her ethnography of a Dominican hair salon in New York City’s Washington Heights, Ginetta Candelario emphasizes the nationalist project that Dominican women’s hair has come to embody– once in the United States, immigrant Dominican women do the work of “displaying Dominican-ness” via the studied and time-consuming management of their hair. Candelario rejects what she understands to be a paternalistic view of Dominican hair care as a “white wish” and instead positions the beauty world in female Dominican New York as the bedrock of collective “economic, emotional, and social well-being” for otherwise marginalized women. I guess I’m wondering about the tension between this vision and a tweet (image included) I saw from a Dominican woman that critiqued white hair professionals’ unwillingness to engage with black hair. While I fully believe in the sanctity of black spaces and Latina spaces, how can we reconcile this with the clearly harmful racial segregation that is the governing rule of haircare in America? How might we maintain beauty labor spaces for people of color but also work against insularity and intolerance in white America when it comes to dealing with all different types of hair?