Praised on the catwalk, punished in the classroom

Black pupils are being excluded from school for wearing hairstyles appropriated by non-black fashion houses. Despite the injustice, these simultaneous instances provide an opportunity to highlight the significance of cultural appropriation

Photo: KHOU

Photo: Christine Poujoulat

Deandre Arnold of Mont Belvieu, Texas has been told by his ironically named Barbers Hill High School, that he will be unable to walk for graduation unless he cuts off his dreadlocks. Citing a policy that limits the length hair but not specific styles. The policing of black hairstyles is an issue that has been pervasive in the United States as well as the United Kingdom. Where even I have also had the pleasure of being excluded during secondary school for having a skin fade on the week I was sitting my GCSE English exams. It is rare that one bad situation is actually improved by another bad situation happening synonymously. I attest however, that Commes Des Garçons' misguided choice to have white models adorned in cornrow wigs at a recent Paris Fashion Week show can actually be a learning curve for those who don't understand what cultural appropriation is or why it matters. In my opinion, culture appropriation is the commercialisation of racialised people's culture by oppressors who simultaneously dehumanise the same racialised people for those exact same cultural practices. Comme Des Garçons are the perfect example of this. A brand that didn't feature any black models for 20 years suddenly co-opting African hair styles for runway is the perfect example of fashion exploitive relationship with blackness. bell hooks brilliant book Race and Representation expounds on the idea on cannibalism in consumer culture. Unfortunately for my sister it also provides evidence that I have officially become the sort of person who gets someone a sociology book for Christmas.

The hairstylist of Comme Des Garçons' show to their credit did apologise stating: My inspiration for the Comme Des Garçons show was Egyptian prince, a look I found truly beautiful and inspirational. A look that was an hommage. At face value it might be plausible that people genuinely believe showcasing elements of other people's cultures is homage. The reality is that people's cultural practices such as hairstyles aren't just aesthetic. They have real world implications and de-contextualising that gives people a false sense of where we are socially. During the transatlantic slave trade British and American slavers shaved the heads of all slaves because tribal hairstyles were a key part of their identities. It was part of a calculated effort to make all black people interchangeable and inhuman by taking away their identity. Fast forward to the past century. The key reason black women routinely relax their hair is an attempt to assimilate in racist societies that propagate Eurocentric beauty ideals. Employability was an impossibility for settling migrants during the windrush generation if they chose to wear black hairstyles. In 2011 St Gregory's Catholic Science College turned away an 11 year old because his cornrows "could encourage gang culture". In 2015 Oscars host Giuliana Rancic saw fit to claim Zendaya's hair (which she wore in locs to the ceremony) looked like she "smells like patchouli oil. Or, weed."As recently as 2018 a high school student called Andrew Johnson was forced to cut off his dreadlocks to be allowed to compete in a school wrestling match. The idea that certain hairstyles insinuate drug use and criminality when worn on black people, but are cute aesthetics if one of the Kardashian brood wants vacation braids is insulting. It showcases the systemic pejoration of blackness in the social consciousness. The point of these examples is to illustrate that people's hair is much more than an aesthetic element that can be worn like a costume. As a young black man: no one would like to live in a post-racial society more than me, but we don't. Furthermore there is no sense in pretending we do to appease people's discomfort and certainly not so that fashion houses play play dress up with people's heritage.

Article written by Martyn Ewoma. See more from Martyn here


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