My braided hair is more than a fashion choice — it’s sending a message

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“Can I touch your hair?” “How long does it take to get it like that?” “OMG, your hair is amazing!”

Not a day goes by when someone, usually a stranger, utters one (or all three of those phrases) after spotting my braided hairstyle.

For the most part, I’m not bothered by it and I understand the curiosity. I’ve been getting my hair braided as far back as I can remember.

As a child, I experienced the regular routine of sitting between the legs of the hair braider as she pulled and stretched my hair to braid or cornrow it while I languished in pain, praying for it to end. Once complete, I’d spend the rest of the time admiring my new look which, as a child, was always adorned with bright coloured beads and ribbons. This was my normal.

When my family migrated to Perth from Zambia in the late ’90s, my mum took on the hair styling and braiding responsibilities. Every Sunday, she carefully and slowly styled my afro hair for the school week ahead.

On school holidays, I’d get my hair braided. It was usually by an international student making some money on the side, and because there weren’t many people who knew how to braid hair, it was always very expensive to get done.

Working in the media led to a conflict with my culture and identity

When I entered the media industry, I felt the pressure to conform to the dominant standard of beauty.

Santilla Chingaipe selfie for story about braided hair.
IMAGESantilla Chingaipe says she wears her hair in braids to express her African identity.(Supplied)

Early in my career I wore my hair straight. But I missed the versatility of braids and being able to express myself through my braided hairstyles. 

I began wearing my hair in an afro and would interchange with braided hairstyles. I never felt that wearing my hair in its natural state would be considered unprofessional.

But that changed when one day, a manager asked me to change my “dishevelled” and “untidy” hair. Up until that point, I’d been able to wear my hair in its natural state at this workplace and it was never a problem.

As a broadcast journalist, complying to guidelines about on-camera appearance isn’t uncommon. In fact, other colleagues of mine were also asked at the time to make changes to their appearance.

However, as the only black African, I felt the changes I was being asked to make were about my identity.

I felt it was an attack on my African heritage and that the only way I could have any career opportunities was if my appearance was more “European” and less “African”.

I was being asked to drastically alter the way my hair looked. I had no choice but to comply, even though I felt it was wrong. I ended up straightening my hair which cost me $100 more per week.

That was several years ago, and since then I’ve been able to grow back my kinky and curly afro and now proudly wear my hair in braids.

Apart from the economic costs (it’s cheaper to have your hair braided than having weekly treatments to style afro hair. It’s also difficult to locate hairdressers that know how to style afro hair in Australia), I wear my hair in braids to express my African identity.

Nothing ‘unprofessional’ about African hair

As a viral tweet observed a few years ago, type into Google “professional hairstyles” and you’ll be met with images of mostly white women with straight or wavy hair and the occasional braided look. Replace “professional” with “unprofessional” and the results show images of mostly black women with afro or braided hairstyles.

In one incident, at Melbourne’s Bentleigh Secondary College, 16-year-old twins, Tahbisa and Grace, were asked to unbraid their hair. The girls, who are of South Sudanese heritage, said the school was attacking their African identity and refused to remove the braids.

The school tried to justify its position by saying that white students who returned from holidays in Indonesia were also asked to remove their braids or cornrows.

Yes, because it’s really the same thing.

Why are people allowed to borrow from our culture, but we can’t embrace it?

Santilla Chingaipe at dinner table for story about her braided hair
IMAGEIt seems that when black women choose to wear their hair naturally, employers and even schools seem to deem this as unprofessional, Santilla Chingaipe says.(Supplied)

Why is it when black people of African descent express their identity and heritage they are policed and told to conform to the dominant culture? Yet when white people appropriate black culture (including hairstyles), they’re celebrated for it? Looking at you, Kim Kardashian, Bo Derek, Kylie Jenner, Miley Cyrus, and too many others to name.

People borrow from cultures all the time. The difference in this situation is the power that one group has.

These days, I’m fortunate to be able to wear my hair as I please without retribution. And it’s for that reason that I braid my hair.

I hope in my own small way, wearing my hair in braids on television and at public events helps normalise the perception of braided hairstyles on people of black African descent in Australia.

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