When I was younger, my mom would often style my hair in two braided pigtails to manage my curls. Living in a predominantly non-black neighborhood and having my hair braided by my non-black mother, to me, she was doing my hair in French braids. However, being a black girl, I also know that this hairstyle can be called cornrows. Two different worlds, same hairstyle.
Occasionally, I have my mom braid my hair to get my hair out of the way for at least a couple of days. My peers are used to my natural hair being out, so when it is not, I stand out. A few years ago, one compliment from a non-black peer stood out to me: “Your trap braids look so cute!”
Trap braids? It was a well-meant compliment, and I thanked them, but the term they used to describe my hairstyle both bothered and intrigued me. For those unaware, “trap” is a very flexible slang term that is used in numerous ways, but most notably, it refers to a place where drugs are trafficked.
Cultural identity as a Black American is a strange thing. Black culture has influenced American culture to the extent that the distinction is often intelligible. Oddly, the United States has both taken elements of Black American culture and criminalized Black American culture. I attribute this partly to the fact that we often fail to realize that African Americans have a distinct cultural identity, and people constantly try to argue that we don’t. Across the diaspora, descendants of slaves in the Americas have cultivated their own unique cultural identities. This is the case in the Caribbean and South America. However, in the United States, the cultural identity of Black Americans is either dismissed, discredited, not taken seriously, or even criminalized and called “ghetto.”
French braids, Dutch braids, or whatever you want to call them, are worn by all kinds of people. Nevertheless, they arguably have been popularized by urban black girls, and when associated with black people, they are referred to as “trap braids.” The ramifications of this are troubling. We see schools that impose dress codes that clearly target black teens, disallowing braids, weaves, and durags, and saying that they are associated with gangs. Yet, at the same time, non-black people love to emulate such styles.
This concept—this conversation–is nothing new. Amandla Stenberg asked it three years ago: “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?” As redundant as this conversation may feel, I think it is important to discuss the power in a name.
Featured image via Instagram user kersti.pitre