Cultural Appropriation of braids at Rihanna's Savage X Fenty Fashion Show
Writer: Itumeleng Sibiya
Editor: Veronica Yung
Graphic Designer & Artist: Pat Sevikul
Since its launch in 2018, Rihanna's Savage X Fenty Lingerie brand continues to leave many in awe with its emphasis on inclusivity and confidence regardless of race, gender, body shape and background. The singer's third Savage X Fenty Fashion show that aired on Amazon on September 24, 2021 showed exquisite lingerie designs and a breath of diversity, but many couldn't help but wonder why there were non-black models including actress Emily Ratajkowski and singer Vanessa Hudgens, with braids. This sparked an online debate around "Cultural Appropriation''.
Emily Ratajkowski and Vanessa Hudgens/Kevin Mazur Getty Images
Cultural Appropriation is a term that baffles many, so to get a better understanding of this term, let's tread on the thin line between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation. Cultural Appropriation is defined as the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of customs, practices, ideas etc of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society. It's taking one aspect of a culture that is not your own and using it for your own personal interest.
Cultural Appreciation is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally. The crucial aspect of determining cultural appropriation is when borrowing becomes exploitation. New York City Hairstylist Tenisha F. Sweet posted a quote on Instagram that said, " If you don't understand cultural appropriation, imagine working on a project and getting an F and then somebody copies you and gets an A and credit for your work. "
Comedian and Television Writer Raina Morris tweeted, "I wish I could write something as funny as putting all these white girls in braids for the Fenty show. Dylan Ali wrote: "I love the Fenty show but I think we need a trigger warning for seeing this many white women in braids. " Another wrote," Loving everything about this show except why are white women in braids??? Rihanna?? What's good? I need answers. "
There is a historical reason as to why this aesthetic notion of having white models in braids was received with a lot of backlash and was perceived as appropriation of Black culture. Braids are an integral part of Black culture. The discovery of ancient stone paintings that showed women with cornrows in North Africa indicates that braids go back in time, approximately 3,500 years ago. They were used to show social status, marital status, religion and other identity markers. For example, a traditional style symbolising heritage for the Fula women of the Sahel region consisted of five long braids down the back with a small tuft of hair gathered at the top of the crown.
The traditional practice of braids was disrupted by the start of the transatlantic slave trade in the fifteenth century. Slavery did not only result in physical and psychological trauma but it also caused an erasure because traffickers shaved the heads of the women in a brutal attempt to strip them of their humanity and culture.
As time progressed in their enslavement, they began to use their braids as another way to survive their harsh reality, so braids served a unique purpose of assisting slaves to escape without blowing their cover. Furthermore, they were a secret messaging system for slaves to communicate with one another about escape plans. Tharps, an associate professor at Temple-University and co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, explains that "people would use braids as a map to freedom." For instance, the number of plaits worn could indicate how many roads people needed to walk or where to meet someone to escape bondage. This shows how historically deep this runs in the Black culture.
Another factor that springs up when talking about cultural appropriation is "privilege". Privilege in this context is when a non-black or brown celebrity has the liberty of wearing a look from another person's culture when that person can't necessarily wear looks from their own culture without suffering some type of fallout. Similarly, to the Fenty show, the white models can wear those braids and be praised as daring, sophisticated, beautiful and cutting-edge, while a black woman can wear the look and be classified as a ghetto, lacking sophistication, and uneducated. An example would be the case of Destiny Tompkins, a former Banana Republic employee, who was told by her manager that her box braids were unprofessional.
The author of My Beautiful Black Hair, St Clair Detrick - Jules says: " For the Producers of Rihanna's Fashion Show to fashion white models with distinctively Black braids kind of feels exhausting. We've been making some headway with educating non-black women about how deep our connections are to our hair- yet here come the Producers willfully ignoring all the easily accessible information online explaining what cultural appropriation is and why it's harmful."
Amid this disapproval, some defended Rihanna and the lingerie brand. One wrote," Banning people from hairstyles is not the way towards better understanding and acceptance of each other. Especially, when the sharing is being facilitated by a POC (person of colour). That's supposed to be a good thing. " Detrick -Jules thinks the attempt to reframe the debate around hair occurs due to lack of knowledge and understanding of history.
Hanging onto the words of Detrick-Jules, " it's easy to understand why a non-black woman might think it's OK to have braids put into her hair. [They] don't understand that, for us, Black hair is Black History. [They] also don't understand the centuries of real trauma Black women have suffered because of our hair and so [a non-black woman] doesn't understand that, to us, braids or other natural Black hairstyles aren't 'fashion'. They are history, they are our connection to our ancestors - a connection that was deliberately broken by the slave trade -they are heritage."