Clara Amfo has risen, step by well-timed step, to become a staple on British radio. Originally on Kiss FM, now as the host of BBC Radio One’s morning show, she’s interviewed the world’s biggest stars and has done so without having to assimilate her image to fall in line with the industry standard for black women; I’m talking about her hair. Years before she started wearing it in an afro, she wore her hair in big Ghana twists; a bold move considering the insidious, prevailing, pervasive notion that black women’s hair in its natural state is “unprofessional” and “unacceptable” for the corporate environment. There is quantifiable evidence of the policing of the way black women present themselves and their hair. The backlash black women (and girls) have faced for daring to wear their hair naturally grows as opposed to perming, straightening it or wearing a wig to keep a job or stay in a classroom is chronicled in the stories of Malaika Maos Eyoh and her South African school's aggressive ban on natural hair, Simone Powderly's ultimatum to lose her braids or lose her job and countless others. Despite Clara’s decision not to conform by wearing styles that help keep her hair healthy, how she is comfortable and happy instead acquiescing to society’s pressures her career progression hasn’t been hindered as she continues her climb to the height of British media.
British brand The Braid Bar who run a pop up shop in London Department giant Selfridges recently contacted Clara Amfo to offer a complimentary appointment to which she replied with an unequivocal “no thank you” as well as the read that reverberated through the ages. “Whilst I’m flattered that The Braid Bar love my style, I couldn’t help but slow eye roll and LOL at the naïve audacity of this offer” her explanation on Instagram begins “…When I looked on this account 90% of the images are of white women with European hair, women like me are not represented here.” Click here to read all her thoughts. The Braid Bar have yet to respond to Clara’s post, continuing to post pictures of white women with European hair because while Clara boasts a staggering 34,000+ followers on the image based social media platform, The Braid Bar has nearly 10k more. God forbid they draw attention to the fact their brand isn't inclusive and they’ve been partaking and benefiting from cultural appropriation.
Kovie Biakolo explains the meaning of cultural appropriation is often conflated with that of “cultural exchange” and the difference lies in who wields power. “In particular, the power of the privileged to borrow and normalise a cultural element of another group, while the appropriated group is often demonised and excluded because of that very cultural element.” In this case, The Braid Bar has been able to financially capitalise off hairstyles that with a white European face is “fashionable” but their own inability to include faces of black women wearing braids proves they are willing to borrow from the culture, but just the hair, the faces they’ll give to white women. The gag is, they should be called The Canerow* Bar cos all now I aint seen a braid in sight. That’s the power of cultural appropriation- taking from a culture and renaming it wrongly and still being able to profit from it because they have been able to normalise hair styles black women have worn for centuries.
*Americans call them cornrows, but here in Britain we call them canerows.
The Daily Fail has been the only publication to cover the story, serving as a dog whistle to those who find the discourse of cultural appropriation “tiresome”. The comments are brim-full of helpful remarks such as “How is Braid Bar supposed to expand their client base to be more inclusive if someone with a chip on their shoulders, such as Amfo, isn't willing to build bridges with them?” and “What a B. They offered her a complimentary service so they clearly had no bad intentions towards her. She turned it into a racial issue when it wasn't one.” I beg my mum not use this this website because it’s a cesspit of racism, misogyny and all the intersections but I digress. If The Canerow Bar want to diversify their portfolio, they need to do so without the help of Clara Amfo’s well established brand, hire black women models first, the same way they hire white women models, and take action rather than pay lip service to inclusion. The attraction they have to Clara Amfo is her high profile. If she was an everyday black woman without her numerous public engagements on BBC Radio or hosting gig at The Brits, would they have so gracefully extended a complimentary (ha!) service to her? Their Instagram page is proof tf they would. Black is beautiful and worthy with or without astounding success.
I’m especially proud of Clara Amfo for bringing attention to the offer. For the sake of protecting her brand she could have simply stayed quiet and appeased those Daily Fail commenters, graciously declining quietly but she didn’t, and while she didn’t hoop and holler about it like I would, her stance was effective in reminding us there is work to do in defeating cultural appropriation. Wear braids, canerows and gel your baby hairs if you want to, run a pop up shop in Selfridges if you must, but never in your mf life forget that when white people do it, it’s “edgy”and “sets trends” but when black women wear styles designed to protect and celebrate our hair, we are denied jobs and education. Let that rest deep in your consciousness in perpetuity.
In her much debated, trash keynote speech Lionel Shriver shared her hope that “the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad.” It’s important that at every juncture we address the issue because to do so, in this case, would lead to the permanent disenfranchisement of black women who do not share Clara Amfo’s freedom of aesthetic expression. To allow cultural appropriation to go unchecked would allow brands who centre whiteness, promoting traditionally black hairstyles to continue to do so with impunity while black women in roles that are not creative are ridiculed and forced to adhere to white standards of beauty. Shriver’s hope would allow businesses happy to take black women’s styles but not black women in our entirety, unless we’re already independently successful like Clara Amfo, while retaining the power and wealth that comes along with our hard work making these styles exciting and popular but sharing neither.
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