Braids Aren’t Just a Hairstyle: the Cultural Significance of Braids

Cultural Significance of Braids featured by top US life and style blogger Alicia Tenise; Image of a woman wearing pajamas.

Having box braids over the last few months has been interesting, to say the least.

Before I got my braids, I popped on Instagram Stories and shared why I was getting them, and also explained the installation process. I know I have a lot of different types of people following me from all different kinds of ethnic and racial backgrounds, and that black hair is a mystery for a lot of people. Heck, I’m still learning about my natural hair and all of the protective styles out there. I’m thrilled that I have this platform and can educate thousands of people on this topic.

The response to my box braids was overwhelming. Most of it was positive. Some responses were pretty ignorant, and unfortunately, I encountered quite a few non-POC who wanted to appropriate my braids. Which is why I feel this needs to be said: braids are more than a hairstyle — they’re a part of our culture.

Cultural Significance of Braids:

Braids Have Deep Roots

Let’s rewind a bit. The history of braids dates back all the way to 3500 BC. In ancient Africa, braids were essentially an ID card: you could look at someone’s hair and determine what family they belonged to, their marital status, or their age.

During slavery, African-Americans could only do their hair about once a week — and braids played a more functional role. Cornrows were a go-to style because they could last an entire week and they were easy to manage. Braids also served another purpose during this time: they became a secret messaging system for slaves to communicate with one another

When I wear braids, it’s more than just a hairstyle for me: it’s a nod to my ancestors. 

Braids are a Protective Hairstyle

I mentioned this over on Instagram Stories, but aside from braids having deep historical roots, they’re also efficient. They’re called a “protective style” because they cause minimal damage and encourage hair growth. 

I’ve had braids off and on my entire life. I got them during the summer when I was in grade school so that I could sweat, jump in the pool, and be a normal child, without worrying about ruining my perm. I got them during college because I moved to a new city and wasn’t able to find a hair salon that I felt comfortable at — and I could only get my hair done every 2-3 months when I visited my hometown. And lastly, I got braids earlier this year because I knew I had back-to-back trips to warmer climates (Hawaii, Argentina, and Puerto Rico). 

Braids = Family Time

My friends and I often joke about getting out hair braided by our parents as kids — and how much we dreaded it when we were growing up. We now know that our hair was braided out of love, and as a way to protect our hair on a day-to-day basis. 

It’s one of my childhood memories: either my mom or another family member would braid my hair on a Saturday morning while watching TV, and get me ready for the day. It hurt like heck and it was one of my least favorite moments of the week, but I wouldn’t trade that family time for anything in the world.

Please: Don’t Culturally Appropriate Braids 

When I had my braids in, I had a few non-POC ask if they could have box braids as I did: and the answer is NO, mainly because it’s not physically possible to achieve the same look.

For starters, the texture of black hair makes box braids/cornrows/microbraids possible. Because of the tightly coiled curl pattern we have, when we put braids in, they last for days, sometimes months even. If you don’t have ethnic hair, these types of styles likely won’t hold for more than a day. 

It’s pretty frustrating to watch non-POC wear cornrows or braids and be hailed as trendsetters by major magazines — like Kim Kardashian getting praised for her ‘innovative’ cornrows, even though it’s a style that black families have done for years. If you feel like you have to try braids out, give credit where it’s due. 

If you want to learn more about the cultural significance of braids, I’d recommend watching this video. It’s super informative, and would likely answer any other questions you might have about braids and appropriation.

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