When Marc Jacobs sent all of his models down the runway yesterday wearing multi-colored dreadlocks, some called it problematic. And that argument can be made—but it’s not one that I believe is cut and dry. The show included myriad shades of women wearing the locs—and no allusions to showcasing them as "new" and/or "groundbreaking"—so I had no bone to pick with the designer who has been called fashion’s "Bad Boy." But once he waded into his Instagram comments to respond to the criticism, likening his actions to black women straightening their hair, I had a problem.
"And all who cry 'cultural appropriation' or whatever nonsense about any race of skin color wearing their hair in a particular style or manner—funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair," he wrote. "I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race—I see people. I'm sorry to read that so many people are so narrow minded...Love is the answer. Appreciation of all and inspiration from anywhere is a beautiful thing. Think about it."
To be clear, Marc, the widespread adaptation of straightened hair in the black community is something that has been forced upon the community due to beauty ideals based on white archetypes. And it’s very much an issue today: In 2014, the American government caved to criticism of its military uniform standards that demanded black women adhere to standards other than the natural styles some had grown accustomed to. Those standards preferred straightened hair. Those styles were supposed to be easy, quick and low-maintenance—for white trainees and service people, they were. For black people, they were the exact opposite; they were a standard enforced on black women without keeping in mind what they would need to do to adhere to those style guidelines.
Just last month, a group of girls made headlines when they wore their natural hair to school and were reprimanded for doing so. School dress code demanded that they change their hairstyles to something more “acceptable.” Something more white. In fact, it explicitly decried natural hair as being “messy.” This was another case of forced conversion of something thought to be more desirable—something else that did not have black women in mind.
In America, the straightening of hair in the black community stretches back to slavery. Yes, this is the same place most racial divisions in America started, but facts are facts. "Slavery, racism, and white supremacy have had lasting negative effects on black identity," Chanel Donaldson, a researcher studying race, ethnicity, and American identity writes in a treatise on the topic. "The devaluation of African physical features, including hair, came as a result of being thrust into a cultural context where blackness exists as the antithesis of beauty." Amongst this blackness comes attributes like Beyonce’s "negro nose and Jackson 5 nostrils," as well as unstraightened hair.
"In an attempt to fit into the model of White beauty, Black women have taken part in many ‘Whitening’ practices that include hair straightening," Donaldson continued. "Such practices allow Black women to come closer to, but still never actually attain, the type of beauty they desire. Hair alteration is effective in transforming the Black woman into something that is simply adequate or sufficient rather than beautiful." Here she draws reference to Virginia Tech professor Ingrid Banks’ book Hair Matters: Beauty, power, and Black women's consciousness.
So, no Marc, it’s not the same.
The difference between a white woman choosing to wear dreadlocks because she's a fan of the style and a black woman straightening her hair because of Eurocentric beauty standards—internalized or otherwise—is stark. And while it may be a matter of opinion to decide whether it's okay for a white person to wear dreadlocks, it's clear that that decision isn't under the same racist pressures put upon black women to straighten their own.
Think about it.