This year, there were plenty of debates around one question: Who, if anyone, can claim cultural ownership of black hairstyles?

Rachel Dolezal adopted a range of traditionally black hairstyles—including dreadlocks, box braids, and a head wrap— to “pass” as a black woman. Miley Cyrus wore dreads the night Nicki Minaj famously asked her, “What’s good?”, a move some saw as particularly objectionable given her controversial comments about Minaj just weeks before. Kylie Jenner’s cornrow selfie drew criticism from Amandla Stenberg, who accused the reality star of cultural appropriation. “When u appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards ur wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter.” Stenberg commented on the photo. 

Even as scrutiny has intensified, cornrows on white people continued to pop up on runways: DKNYAlexander McQueenMarchesa, and Valentino all featured models flaunting the style, with Valentino's show prompting a New York Times op-ed titled, “Does Anyone Own the Cornrow?”

The politics of cornrows are complicated: Rooted in black identity, they have deep cultural significance. So, when white people "try on" and popularize a style that originated in Africa, they're essentially adopting a part of black culture.

But is that necessarily a bad thing? Is there a right and wrong way to wear hairstyles that belong to cultures other than your own? Where is the line between appreciation and appropriation? Can a hairstyle ever be "just hair"?

NTRSCTN hit the streets of New York City to get some answers. 

Interviews by Shanté Cosme // Photos by Corey Chalumeau 

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