"Why can't I have locs? It's just a hairstyle."
I've heard this time and time again. I've read it online I've seen non-black people get locs or box braids believing the hairstyles have no significance and that it's just hair.
This is incorrect and a prime example of cultural appropriation.
Hair is not only a mode of self-expression but a physical identifier of one's culture. A style like box braids, for example, is traditionally African and African-American. Donning this style as a fashion statement is cultural appropriation, and it's just as bad as buying a cheap "Navajo headdress" from urban outfitters and calling yourself an "Indian Princess." One might argue that, yes, Europeans have traditional braided hairstyles and therefore, getting braids isn't cultural appropriation. If Europeans have traditional braided hairstyles, why don't you do those?
African-American women are often accused of cultural appropriation for wearing long, straight, and often blonde, weaves. This is not cultural appropriation, it is cultural assimilation. Natural coily, kinky and curly hair has been seen as ugly, unprofessional, and even illegal at times. During the Jim Crow era, it was illegal in some places for black women to go into town without straightened hair. Chemical relaxers and long straight weaves are a result of the desire to survive in a culture that is unwelcoming of one's natural features. Black women are treated unfairly because of their hair even today. The US Army only recently lifted its ban on natural hairstyles for black women. Some employers have even recently fired black women for wearing dreadlocks.
Traditional African-American hairstyles are not just hair. They are an expression of culture and individuality. Appropriating this aspect of culture is harmful and racist and should be taken seriously. The phrase "It's a culture, not a costume" rings true. Cultures are not costumes, fashion statements, jokes, or threats. Culture should be celebrated and appreciated, not appropriated.