Let’s talk lewks: Black style and appropriation

By Michelle Harris | Guest Writer

Picture of guest writer

Michelle Harris is a Black woman with a heart for people, beauty, fashion, education, and the arts. She graduated with a B.A. in psychology.

Michelle spent some time working the beauty counter and aspiring to be a fashion designer for the greats. While she tells us she may not get glammed up as much as before (thanks COVID-19), you can still catch her fangirling over the latest Vogue cover or stalking the latest beauty trends just for fun!


A surefire way to upset a Black woman is to mess with her hair or degrade her physical appearance. Maintaining a pristine appearance is regarded as a serious metric of social status, individuality, and shared cultural understanding among Black women. 

Most women of color spend hundreds of dollars each month on their look — from the lashes, hair, nails, makeup, outfits — our appearance is a “whole bill.” And while it seems inconceivable for me to stomach spending such an exorbitant amount on a beauty routine, it makes complete sense why many go to such lengths. 

Black woman wearing headwrap standing behind flower
Photo by KissedByTheGods on Pexels.com

Here’s Some Context

Hundreds of years ago, enslaved women were forced to cover up their hair as a staunch symbolism of slavery and dismissal of their inherent African beauty. For centuries society viewed Black women as undesirable, unattractive, and blatantly argued our humanity, but we found a way to fight through. Headwraps and braided styles, once a demeaning sign of our servitude and others’ beliefs of our undesirability, have become symbols of our trendsetting abilities.

In the age of slavery, cornrows, individual braids, headwraps, and other African American hairstyles, were worn exclusively by individuals of African descent. Our sole focus was our survival by way of adherence to slave laws, and we weren’t concerned with being pretty or “trending.” 

However, over the course of centuries, the looks that we wore to keep our hair out of our face, covered, and cognizant of social hierarchy, have become cultural icons for other racial groups. 

Please Stop Doing These Things

Light-skinned woman with braids and tattoos
Photo by ANDRu00c9 FELLIPE on Pexels.com

In the melting pot of America, it has become unsurprising to see Katy Perry wearing “Cleopatra style” braids (complete with a grill, of course), influencers darkening their skin to the extent that their European heritage becomes alarmingly questionable, and bloggers referring to bantu knots as “mini buns.”

Blackfishing, which is excessive tanning or darkening one’s complexion to the extent that others question one’s ethnicity, is a common concern that needs addressing. As our world grows increasingly diverse and people openly appreciate the garments, hairstyles, and fashion of neighboring cultures, it’s quite disrespectful to assume that shared interest means shared ethnicity. 

Liking Black culture and even feeling a strong connection to the customs does not equate with Blackness, and our rich complexion can’t be reduced to a tanning solution that garners social profit. 

Liking Black culture and even feeling a strong connection to the customs does not equate with Blackness, and our rich complexion can’t be reduced to a tanning solution that garners social profit. Our melanin points to a complex cultural history that highlights our challenges, beauty, and rich heritage that stands the test of time.

It’s interesting how things work: at first we weren’t even seen as fully human, and now people want to claim our style. In this world of blurred cultural expressions, it’s safe to say that other people don’t pay homage to the origins of our style. 

However, I’d be remiss not to admit that Black people also embrace certain aspects of cultures that are not our own. We wear Japanese kimonos but don’t take the time to understand how they are intended for special occasions and can be seen as a work of art. We wear Eastern Indian headscarves and adorn red dots on ourselves without understanding the cultural implications. The list can go on and on and ought to be addressed.

Collectively, we take from each other and embrace each others’ dress and looks, but it hits differently for Black women. Rather than cultural sharing with respect, we experience appropriation and theft without so much as an acknowledgment.

In this world of blurred cultural expressions, it’s safe to say that other people don’t pay homage to the origins of our style. 

While people “share” Black beauty by admiring our hair, lips, skin, curves, and attire, we are still some of the most disrespected people in society, as evidenced by the unlawful murder of Breonna Taylor. On top of the violence, it seems other racial and ethnic groups get more recognition for the features we were born with.

Portrait of Black Woman
Photo by Caio Cardenas on Pexels.com

How to Do Better Now

So where do we go from here? In an effort to celebrate Black beauty, are we better off staying within the realm of our cultural identities (non-Blacks can’t tan or wear braids, people can’t wear other forms of dress)? 

No, as a multicultural, democratic society, it would be unconstitutional in this age (not that it made a difference earlier in the United States’ history) to ban people from wearing certain hairstyles, force them to align with their own beauty standards, and forbid them to “enhance” their features. We cannot legislate style! But as a culturally expansive society, we can better understand before we wear. 

Multi-ethnic woman wearing glam attire
Photo by Gabb Tapic on Pexels.com

Before taking a picture of cornrows and defiantly labeling them “boxer braids,” take a few minutes to read up on their cultural significance for the Black community. Before darkening your complexions so much to pass as a Black woman, learn about colorism and how richer complexions have not always been regarded highly. Before overlining lips to epic proportions, take a moment to learn about that culture. Then reexamine your decision within your newfound knowledge. 

In order to navigate the beauty world better, we can start by educating ourselves. Education doesn’t need to be reading an encyclopedia of information on Black or Brown beauty. It might mean having a conversation with someone whose look you may secretly covet and learning to be more open to their world and lived experience. 

Educating yourself may include taking time to understand why you desire other aesthetics besides your own so strongly. (Therapy, anyone?) It can certainly include watching informational yet entertaining television about the Black experience (try Blackish and BlackAF) in addition to simply searching the internet for reliable information (consider the sources thoughtfully).

The best course of action in our ever-changing beauty landscape is not demanding erasure. We are growing more diverse over time, so the only way we can succeed as a cultural melting pot or “salad bowl” is by understanding our unique differences. 
It’s not enough to take something that’s not yours and claim you invented it. (We’re looking at you this coming week, Christopher Columbus). Let’s do the work to learn about our unique beauty, give credit where credit is due, and stay in our own lanes when needed.

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