Illustration by Rob Mirolo

Dear Emma, am I culturally appropriating as a white person if I use black hair techniques for my tight, curly hair, which is “mixed” hair (inherited from my South African grandad)? For example, if I braid my hair as a protecting style? I do not know the history or cultural context of braiding, only that it will protect my type of hair. What is your opinion on how to navigate cultures where you might not neatly fit in either? I am “white” but my hair is “black”.

No, it is not cultural appropriation. First of all, you are not straightforwardly “white”, and moreover, you have Afro-textured hair, so it is entirely appropriate for you to wear a protective style that was created to maintain hair like yours. These styles developed to accommodate hair texture like your own. The idea that you would leave your hair “down” is one that applies to European or Asian hair textures. Afro-textured hair grows “up” not “down”, so the concept is alien really.

Secondly, our hair is prone to dryness and tangling, leaving it “out” or “loose” for too long isn’t always healthy, which is why in most African cultures, women kept their hair braided, and is precisely why these styles are called “protective styles”. The Afro itself is not a typically aesthetically African hairdo. It’s a black diasporic response to racism – a defiant “up yours” to a society that told us our hair was ugly.

You don’t know the history, you say. No big deal. These hairstyles are part of your heritage. Being mixed can be a funny old thing. There is such great diversity between our appearances. It’s often anybody’s guess whose features we will inherit. It’s all so arbitrary, but then goes on to have such a huge impact on how we are perceived.

I have seen people like yourself with one black grandparent, who, for all intents and purposes could “pass” as white, down to having pale skin and straight, silky, blonde hair. Meanwhile, others of the exact same mix might have brown skin and curly, or even tightly coiled Afro hair, while others might have a combination of any of those features. Anything is possible! Race is a construction, not a science, and people are complex. We don’t fit easily into the neat little categories society feels comfortable trying to squeeze us into.

While the terms black and white shift the emphasis of racialization onto skin colour, never underestimate the power of hair to dictate racial categorisation. In South Africa, where your grandfather comes from, the now infamous pencil tests were used to determine the race of mixed-race children.

“The tests were primarily based on appearance – skin color, facial features, appearance of head (and other) hair. Most infamously, the ‘pencil test’ decreed that if an individual could hold a pencil in their hair when they shook their head, they could not be classified as White. The tests were so imprecise that members of an extended family could be classified in different racial groups,” writes Amanda Uren.

I don’t know how old you are, but as recently as 1994, and the overthrowing of the disgusting system of apartheid, somebody like yourself who might “look white”, but had black hair, would not be classified as white. And as such they would not legally be allowed to live with their white family members.

During slavery in the Americas, hair was pretty much defined as the stuff that grew from European people’s heads. Our hair was described as more akin to the wool of animals. This was part of the lie of black inferiority, a myth created to say that we were closer to animals, and therefore to justify our enslavement.

And post-emancipation, both complexion and hair texture were used to determine admission into what was known as the “Negro elite”. This was the upper echelon of black society, who tended to be light-skinned, intergenerationally mixed people who – while classified as “negro” – still had enough white ancestry to have been bequeathed some European features, pale complexions, and what is still known as “good” hair, hair that is considered “softer”, “more manageable” – all of these euphemistic terms, that essentially mean closer to European.

Entry into elite black churches, fraternities and sororities, and often, social advancement generally, was determined by possession of these features. Have you heard of the paper-bag test? If you were of African descent but your skin was darker than a paper bag than you couldn’t join these groups or attend certain parties.

But people forget that hair was judged in the same way. In their book Hair Story, Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps detail more “pencil tests”. These consisted of a pencil that was hung up the doorway of an elite church and –much like in South Africa – if the pencil held, no admittance for you sunshine!

Often the expectation when somebody is “mixed race” is that they will have “good hair”. Personally, I am very light-skinned for a “mixed-race” person, but I have hair that is very African in texture. Throughout my life people have expressed surprise, and even disappointment, that I have black hair.

Returning to another South African example, a friend from Jo’burg recently told me that when a mixed child is born with my texture, the reaction is often “what a shame” (which makes me feel great about everything really). I spent years chemically straightening my hair to “fit in”.

The stigma that exists around black hair is such that it took me a long, long time to learn to love my own, but now I wouldn’t change it for the world. It is beautiful, versatile and unique. What other group of people in the world possess this type of hair?

So listen, these styles are part of your history and your heritage, they are also a practical and healthy way for you to look after your hair. Your question makes me think of these words of the late great visionary James Baldwin: ”Our crown has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear it.”

Enjoy rocking those fabulous styles sis x

Emma Dabiri is an Irish-Nigerian academic, writer, and broadcaster. She is the author of the book _Don't Touch My Hair_ (London: Allen Lane, 2019).

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