Mohawks, Cornrows and Dreads – Oh My



Dear Dharma,

Who knew a hairstyle could ruin my life!

I’m in my first year of college and as long as I can remember, I have envied the long braids I’ve seen on black woman. Finally, I decided to go for it. Extensions are not cheap – it took a while to save up from my part time job, and the process took hours. However, I was thrilled with the results. I have a head full of beautiful blonde braids.

There is a black woman in a couple of my classes and she freaked right out. As soon as I walked into class she jumped up, swore, and then got right up in my face yelling that I was insensitive. I was doing cultural appropriation, and I had no right to wear my hair in braids.

I was completely humiliated in front of the whole class. When the teacher arrived and saw what was going on, he thought it would be a great idea to use class time to debate if I was guilty of cultural appropriation or not. The class was pretty divided, and the whole time I felt sick to my stomach.

Now she shoots me daggers whenever we cross paths and I am extremely anxious whenever I have to go that class. I didn’t mean to upset anyone, and I didn’t like being singled out. I just wanted nice hair.

Am I guilty of cultural appropriation?


Maybe I Should go Bald (but that may upset people with alopecia?)

Dear Bald,

Ugh. This topic is both confusing and upsetting to me, so it doesn’t surprise me that the class was divided.

So the first thing to admit here is that I certainly would fall into the category of “privileged white girl”. It’s not uncommon for me to look like a wide eyed dummy when I hear of someone getting upset and angry over an issue that wouldn’t even hit my radar.

Like braids.

That someone would freak out over a white girl with blonde braids seems stunning to me.  And yet… I absolutely recognize that I can’t even begin to reconcile what it is like to be the target of racism and discrimination. Or to have a hairstyle that has a cultural background (unless the Jennifer Aniston hair cut counts) that could be infringed upon.

I’m slightly too young to know if Bo Derek was accused of cultural appropriation with the smash hit 10.  Or if punk rockers were taken to task in the 80’s over their use of Mohawks.  Did cultural appropriation maybe not exist back then, or… ?

I know a lovely and talented artist who says she paints fantastic pictures of canoes.  Yet she won’t put them on her website because she knows she’ll be asked what a white woman could possibly know about canoes and their history, and how dare she rip off their art.

Which causes me, the stunned and wide eyed dummy I often am, to think… but… isn’t that some form of discrimination? To say that because you are not of a certain background or culture, that all things to do with that culture are off limits to everyone else?

That’s such a confounding concept to me.

Moving on, because I recognize none of my rambling actually helps, I would say no, I don’t think you are guilty of anything other than having a great hairstyle… but what the hell do I know.

I might suggest talking to the teacher to let him know that was a really uncomfortable experience for you. Ask for some assistance on how to move forward while both this girl and your braids are in the same class.  Because I’m thinking that having someone swearing and yelling in your face might be the thing  that should be considered a tad insensitive and potentially inappropriate .



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  • What a bizarre letter. Is this for real?? Has society swung so far left that ‘hair’ is now on the chopping block of taboos? If this is true then it’s my belief this ‘cultural appropriation’ has gone waaaay too far. (I actually do think it has gone too far in our society.) For the black girl to respond as she did says to me there is more to her resentment than hair. I see a class bully and she clearly has other issues that triggered such behaviour.

    And I also hold the teacher accountable for even encouraging this absurd debate and giving a ‘bully’ a platform that apparently has no end given the ongoing emotional abuse. If I were braids I would definitely take this up with the teacher and demand his help moving this forward and out of the classroom.

    And by the way, its my belief that the half who took up cause with the bully are classic bully followers. I would bet that if you took the angry black girl out of the mix this discussion would be a non sequitur.

    I’m off. my nephew is having his baby’s picture taken and the little guy is sporting a mohawk. Yikes! But first I need to wash my dreadlocks.

    • Dharma says:

      I completely agree that the way the teacher handled things was inappropriate and gave the situation way more legs than it deserved. And while the angry girl may have felt justified in her feelings, verbally attacking another classmate is waaaay out of line and should have been addressed first and foremost.

      Thanks so much for your comment and I really need to see a picture of this baby… 🙂

  • That teacher has never taken a course in multicultural orientation. I am right there with you, Dharma, with one difference: I have lived through discrimination and persecution. When I taught this course, which is mandatory for teacher certification in Florida, we always discussed the concepts of cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation, but putting a student on the spot as an exhibit is completely inappropriate.