Black Hair and Climbing Part IV

Part IV: Is It Privilege?

   In competitive sports we have also often seen two cornrows or ‘french braids’ on the heads of female athletes such as Brooke Raboutou. Is it appropriation?

   To answer this question, I am going to put myself up as an example. As a person with mixed African and white heritage I am an example of questioning. I am of light skin with S curly type hair which can be coaxed into curls with the right products but can also puff up like Sister Act. I can be perceived as being white from skin color (as someone once told me they thought I was a white lady with a tan) and hair (when I press/relax it). Can someone like me sport African based hairstyles?

   First and foremost we have to start with privilege. My blood is my ancestors’ which means I have every right to sport these hairstyles. Where it gets tricky is intention: am I doing it to be seen as cool and taking it off for interviews? Or am I authentically trying to take good care of my hair while realizing the privilege I have in possibly passing as white which gains me access to power in many situations?

   And on the flip side, I am also privileged that in many situations more often than not I am recognized as being of African descent and subsequently it’s easier for me to sport African hairstyles because it matches my features. I do know other people with mixed African heritage that do not present with any African features at all. In this case, if they do wear natural hair styles and are perceived as white, is it giving permission to white folks to also wear African hairstyles? Possibly.

   You unfortunately will not find concrete answers here. Once again, race and the many nuances of it are messy and usually have loose guidelines as to what is appropriate or what is harmful. So it all falls on you: what do you and your actions say?

   As a general rule of thumb, I personally think that people without African heritage (yes this includes you who is white presenting with that like .002% African heritage from 23andMe) should not wear African based hairstyles (locs, box braids, twists, cornrows, etc). Even if your one Black friend says it’s ok just remember the general impact you are having on others: displaying power over being able to wear it without permanent backlash with the ability to step out of the costume and resume your life as a privileged person. And as for people with mixed African heritage: choose wisely. As someone who has had to think about this long and hard, I know it opens up an entire identity conversation that is a learning process that never stops. For myself, I use African based hairstyles for my hair because it is the happiest in these forms.

   And as for athletes such as Brooke Raboutou, who is white, I personally do  not see anything wrong with her sporting 2 ‘french braids’. Historically this has been a hairstyle used by many: having more than that I would consider it cornrows and more African hairstyle territory.

   Concerning climbing as of now, to my knowledge, there are no restrictions on Black hairstyles in the competitive realm of climbing. However, the number of Black competitors in general is a low number as it is, with women and non binary/gender non conforming Black competitors even lower. Among my favorite International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) Black competitors are Kai Lightner, Meagan Martin, Molly Thompson Smith, Bassa Mawen, and Mickael Mawen.. And people like Emily Taylor with the goal of putting the first Black girl on an Olympic podium someday25, I hope that participation will continue to rise.

   I have never personally witnessed any white/white presenting people sport any decidedly African based hairstyles until I caught the 2022 November Climbing Escalade Canada (CEC) Senior Bouldering Nationals. And there it was plain as day: a white presenting young competitor sporting cornrows named Evangelina Briggs.

  I do not agree with their use of cornrows. If you look closely at the tips of their hair, it is clear the hair is straight. And further pictures on their social media confirm straight, blonde hair. This white or white presenting person has apparently been sporting this hairstyle since at least 2018 while competing. Why would someone want to sport a hairstyle outside of their culture?

   While we have witnessed many stories about Bo Derek27, Miley Cyrus and other various public figures sporting African based hairstyles and culture in general, the question still remains even after they have been called out about cultural appropriation. Why sport these African based hairstyles?

   In this particular case, I feel it would not be fair to go after Evangelina Briggs, as they are a 15 year old person. The responsibility, of course, lies with their parents as well as generations before them. Somewhere along the line their parents agreed to let them get this hairstyle, paid for it even. And in this is exactly the problem. The former generation suffers from the exact type of racial isolation as their ancestors due to redlining which also resulted in everyday segregation of schools and communities. Let’s examine a few details about the area where the Briggs family resides concerning racial demographics.

Works Cited

25. Brown Girls Climb. “Emily Taylor: Paving A Way for the Next Generation of Competitive Climbers” 03 Dec 2022

26. 03 Dec 2022

27. Gilliam, Dorothy. “Cornrows Don’t Belong to Bo”, 15 Dec 2022

28. Bryant, Taylor. “Miley Cyrus Is STILL Wearing Those Controversial Dreadlocks 03 Dec 2022

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