I feel like people who read this blog frequently may laugh at this opening, but, I recently got my hair braided…I know, I know. I keep saying this conversation will end, the conversation around braids and appropriation and “it’s just hair”. A realization happened while I was getting my hair braided though, that I think is worth sharing to explain better the argument about cultural practices and what that really means.
I recently went to an African braiding salon for the first time. Every previous time I got my hair braided was in a friends house, or kitchen where we could talk freely, listen to music, snack, watch comedy specials. For the first time I walked into an establishment, hair and style desired in tow, to get a service. As the two women started to speak French to each other assuming I couldn’t (to which I immediately notified them I could) I saw their demeanour change. Whatever they were about to say about me, negative or positive, now turned into praising me for being bilingual, for keeping my French from NB when I moved. I watched these women still speak their native language to each other, speak French to each other on occasion, speak French to me. They communicated with ease while pulling my hair tight against my scalp.
I realized then, that yes, the braids themselves hold historical and cultural significance. Apparently slaves smuggled food in their braids, and as I’ve mentioned in prior numerous times, it is also meant to protect a specific hair type, but maybe it wasn’t the hair at all. I recognized in that moment, as they asked me about my language, my skin mix, my parents, my upbringing, that the salon was a safe space. I know others have felt that moment, when you go get your nails done as gossip flows around you, or you get your hair blow dried and the staff talk crap about horrible previous clients, or let you tell embarrassing stories about your box dye jobs. I know my mom would talk sh*t about the neighbours in our neighbourhood salon, and for a while, my godmother’s cousin was our hair dresser so we talked about family gossip. That same sense of familial connection is instantly present in an African salon or hairdressing setting. We instantly felt comfortable enough to talk about language barriers, the racism in New Brunswick and Québec, the amount of children my braider had, how she liked Toronto over Montréal. Instead of just gossip, we were talking about barriers, socio-economic issues and things that affected us both as Black women, while this woman literally dug her fist into my soul twisting the hair around mine (it looks fresh, but OUCH).
While, yes, I do believe box braids look silly on white people, not only would it probably bald you but when I tell you, this woman rocked my sh*t doing my braids…It’s been days and I am still in pain (For those who don’t know, it’s extremely tight to knot hair around your own in the braids, and it pulls. I cried). I think the other thing Black people are trying to protect is a safe space, a church where they congregate around synthetic fibres, and hot appliances, and talk about how society, how the world outside their salon, has wronged them. I’m sure they would be willing to serve white people and make money, but I do think that the aspect of “cultural practices” also refers to being allowed into those safe spaces, being taught the practice from a community member, and maybe that is the key part of the discussion that is missing. It’s not about hair, it’s not about a hair style, it’s about free flowing conversation in a mini sanctuary and I think that (and my hair) is beautiful.