Black Hair and Climbing Part I

“I am not my hair. I am not this skin. I am not your expectations, no no…I am the soul that lives within.”

-India Arie1

Part I: Bo Derek

   I gently swung the bathroom door open and raised my eyes to meet a white presenting seemingly cis gender woman standing in front of the mirrored sinks. Immediately this person drops their gaze without expression, returning to their hygiene items. I step in further while taking in what I have just witnessed: a white presenting person with full on cornrows and hair extensions brushing their teeth.

   As I walk over to an adjacent sink and look at my own reflection in the mirror I see the same hairstyle on myself: cornrows with hair extensions. My face reflects decidedly African features and light brown skin. Being a person who is half Black and half white, the journey I have been on in deciding where I fit into spaces and the privilege to choose African hairstyles has always been apparent to me.

   I dig out my toiletries and commence my hygiene routine just as the person down the sink is doing from me. This is a usual routine for anyone camping in the area with no running water so it was safe for me to assume they were there for hiking, climbing, etc. In fact, later on I did see them at a climbing crag.

   “B*tch. F****** Bo Derek.”2 I think to myself. My negative reaction to this is not because we basically wore the same dress to the ball: it is because I assume this person to be white wearing a commonly Black hairstyle. Yet at the same time I also know people of mixed heritage who are more white presenting also rocking Black hairstyles, so who was I to assume they were not Black?

   This internal conflict I was mulling around in my head whilst brushing my teeth is part of a larger societal conversation: what hairstyles are decidedly Black and who is allowed to wear them? Why do I feel so strongly about white people not wearing African based hairstyles? And how is this relevant in the climbing/outdoor community? And am I even allowed to wear Black hairstyles being a light skinned Black person with mixed heritage?

   Here I will discuss cultural appropriation and where it shows up in climbing spaces, policies in the US surrounding Black hair, policies in sports for Black hair/accessories, and what specific hairstyles could be considered appropriation by non Black people.

   To analyze this we must first be aware of the history of Black hair and connotations that come with it. And yes as always, it starts with slavery because the context of this article is in the United States and almost all negative rhetoric surrounding Black skinned people stem from it. If you are not familiar with this concept yet, you can google “Black hair and slavery”. As a general statement I can say skin color has not only been the only way for chattel slavery to leave existing systems in place to discriminate against Black people: hair has as well. 

   To add insult to injury, not only have people in positions of power made systems to keep Black people out, they then don things from the oppressed demographic. One of the worst ways to punish someone without power is to make fun of them: essentially adopting their styles, mannerisms, music, etc as a costume or a joke. Taking culture from an oppressed group is wrong because the privileged can always drop back into their privilege by leaving the temporarily adopted culture behind. This is called cultural appropriation, and was a large discussion in my other article Hip Hop in Climbing: Part III. Revisit or visit this for a more in depth look at appropriation.

      “First of all, let’s define appropriation. To appropriate something plainly means ‘the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.’3 Cultural appropriation in this day and age is inevitable due in large part to people being unaware of history or being complacent. However, where it becomes problematic is when the appropriating party has power in the society over the culture it has taken from4. In America, the ones with the power are white and white presenting/passing people5” (which also includes hair type of a straighter nature).

   “People who have privilege in this society can not and should not be dropping in for only the fun parts of Black culture. As Paul Mooney has observed: ‘Everybody wanna be a nigga but nobody wanna be a nigga.’6 It means that white America loves Black culture and yet Black people are one of the most discriminated against, killed, and incarcerated peoples here. Dropping in for only the fun bits of the culture not only make for appropriationist propaganda: it is racist behavior. Standing by and imitating a culture without doing the hard work for the people, for the community is the worst kind of racism: it is like smiling at someone after you have spit in their face.” (These word were originally published in my earlier blog post Hip Hop in Climbing Part III: “Counterculture”)

   I have written extensively on the topic of appropriation in my Hip Hop in Climbing article and I invite you to read it as well. And in staying true to the nature of this blog, let’s discuss how Black hair has or hasn’t shown up in climbing spaces next.

Works Cited 

1. “I Am Not My Hair (Official Music Video) ft. Akon” YouTube, uploaded by India Arie, 16 Jun 2009,

2. Gilliam, Dorothy. “Cornrows Don’t Belong to Bo”, 11 NOv 2022

3., “Appropriation Definition”, 3 May 2020

4.  Jackson, Lauren Michele. “When We Talk About Cultural Appropriation, We Should Be Talking About Power”, 3 May 2020.

 5. Hudelson, Crystal. “Hip Hop in Climbing: Part III” 12/27/2022

6.  “Paul Mooney: Everyone Wants To Be A Nigga” YouTube, uploaded by Jay Denson, 15 Jun 2015

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