“When I think about box braids I always think about this free-flowing fun person that I want to be around, so I envisioned myself to be that person, to feel powerful”, says Rya Tmiri, a 21-year-old non-black Moroccan artist and model based in Dubai who proudly sports box braids despite cultural-appropriation accusations, “It helps me be at ease with who I am as an individual.”
While she admits “a lot of Africans of colour get so offended by my hairstyle,” Rya has found herself excluded from a number of creative projects because certain brands refuse to showcase a non-black model wearing box braids in their campaigns.
“I didn’t even know cultural appropriation was a thing until recently” says another young woman, who preferred to stay anonymous. She’s 23-years-old, non-black, Tunisian, and like Rya, she wears box braids regularly. We’ll call her Farah for the sake of clarity.
“I’m African. I love Africa, and I think this hairstyle symbolizes that. I feel connected to the continent when I wear them, so I do it,” Farah continues.
She also regularly dons clothing made of Ankara fabrics, commonly known as ‘wax print’. To her, they symbolize ‘Africa’ the same way box braids do. The fabrics, widely associated with West Africa, were in fact a Dutch invention, sold to West Africans after the resin-printed fabric failed in the Indonesian market. The prints you see on what’s now known as ‘Ankara’, actually originated in Indonesia, and are known as batik. The Dutch wanted to mass-produce them and sell to Indonesians; when that didn’t work, they sold them in West African countries where they proved to be popular.
When I told Farah about this little-known backstory, she was surprised. She also didn’t know about the struggles many African-Americans face in the workplace for wearing hairstyles like box-braids or cornrows.
In July, California became the first state in the United States to criminalize discrimination against people based on their natural hair—that’s how much Black Californians were pressured to conform to Eurocentric norms, and punished if they didn’t. They literally needed a law to protect them. The same goes for Black people across America, and in Europe too.
“I find utterly ridiculous because for me I grew up surrounded by different cultures where having box braids was as normal as wearing any other hairstyle” Rya replies when asked what she thinks of the backlash against her wearing the hairstyle.
“I remember my mom used to make me wear box braids from time to time when I was a kid, for the simple reason that I have a lot of curly hair which was very hard to manage,” she affirms. “I don’t have time to maintain my curly hair every single day since I work all the time so I needed something that would make me feel good and confident about myself but also very easy to handle at the same time.”
Both Farah and Rya didn’t think their hairstyle choices were offensive, and despite the debate, continue to sport them. When Rya was called out for cultural appropriation, it didn’t change her viewpoint. “I don’t think it’s inappropriate because it is also a part of my culture, growing up watching females around me embracing it as well because it’s beautiful” she says. “I don’t think it’s inappropriate because it is also a part of my culture,” she continues.
“I don’t really face a lot of backlash here in Tunisia,” says Farah. “Tunisians are white, black and everything in between. And my black Tunisian friends have never had a problem with my braids.”
To Farah, it’s an exclusively American problem. “We don’t really have this problem with cultural appropriation here. It’s true some people are racist, but everyone likes braids. No-one is going to lose a job if they wear braids here, we’re all miserable and unemployed together.”
As for Rya, she believes that people need to reformulate what they think about cultural appropriation: “The way I see it, it is simply a form of embracing and appreciating cultures.”