Updated on March 9, 2017
Cultural Appropriation: What it is, What it is Not, and Why it Matters
When I first had the idea to start this blog I knew that one of my focuses would be topics that affected me as a member of the Black community in America, among other things, and at the same time balance it with not-so-heavy topics because everyone deserves to smile every once in awhile, despite all the injustices and annoyances in the world.
So here goes, my very first serious topic, cultural appropriation. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. This is such a loaded topic so we will start by breaking it down. I think we can agree that culture is a culmination of the characteristics and practices of a particular social or ethnic group and that to appropriate means to take for oneself, often without permission. Simply put, cultural appropriation is the theft of what makes a community of people unique.
In my experience, this term has most often been used to describe what mainstream-White society has done to minority or other cultures, such as Native-Americans and Black/African-Americans. We all know that White society stripped both of these communities of their cultures from their very first encounters with them hundreds of years ago. These cultures were not just erased, but many parts were stolen as well. But the usual question for people who just don’t get cultural appropriation is, “How is it happening today?”
In a bit, I’m going to use the example that irks me the most: hair. I have seen so many arguments about how a hairstyle is or is not cultural appropriation that it is clear that mainstream-White society and even minority community members oftentimes completely miss the point. Let me break it down.
At the end of an episode of Comedy Central’s Broad City, Jaime, who is Hispanic, very sincerely explained to his roommate and friend Ilana, who is White and Jewish, what cultural appropriation is. Referring to Ilana’s hoop earrings with the word “Latina” in the middle, Jaime told her, “It’s almost like you are stealing the identity from people who fought hard for it against colonial structures.” Jaime points out the big-picture problem, which is that minority cultures have struggled to hold on to what is left of what makes them unique, despite the onslaught of historical colonialism and the pressure to assimilate today. I’m not entirely sure Ilana got the message but I think that it showed just how clueless even the most “woke” people can be; and Ilana considers herself to be pretty enlightened.
While Jaime pointed to the huge, underlying problem, that isn’t the only problem with cultural appropriation in present times. These days, it’s thought to be cool and fashion-forward for mainstream to, we’ll say, “adopt” hairstyles, clothing, and all types of other things from minority cultures. That wouldn’t be so bad if the people adopting these unique styles weren’t the very people who hold racist or discriminatory beliefs about the people in the cultures who they were “borrowing” from. To make matters worse, the people responsible for this thievery are often members of the very group of people that ripped the culture from these minorities to begin with. Basically, these appropriators are the people who benefit from the privilege granted them by being part of a community that caused and still causes other members of society to suffer on a daily basis because of their uniqueness. Clearly, with all of this context, it should be easy to understand why cultural appropriation is offensive.
Not everyone who is guilty of cultural appropriation is a direct perpetrator of colonialism, racism, or even benefit from privilege – although this can be argued. Many cultural appropriators catch backlash simply because they don’t understand, or even care to understand, the origin of the culture that they have decided to take. This shows a severe lack of respect for the people in that culture. The ignorance of the problematic nature of their behavior does not absolve them, though, because the fact that they feel that it isn’t important for them to understand, and it probably doesn’t even cross their mind, is an indication of an inherent privilege and a learned racism that are both inherited from a ever-present history of colonialism.
Finally, my hair example. I could go on about this for days. We’ll start with braids, cornrows to be specific. From probably the beginning of time, cornrows have been used in the Black community to style our hair. Some say it was used historically to make our hair more “tidy” and others have said that it is a way to express the beautiful versatility of our hair. Whatever the purposes it has, the cornrows style has been passed down to Black-Americans through many generations of African and Afro-Caribbean culture.
I can bet that the magazines that proclaimed that Kim Kardashian made cornrows (or what they are now calling “boxer braids” because of the hairstyle female boxers have adopted) fashionable have no understanding of where cornrows actually came from. Yes, Kim may have made cornrows mainstream, but they have been fashionable for decades in the Black community. And that is the issue – I don’t think anyone is saying (at least I am not saying) that Kim can’t wear her hair in cornrows. But to not acknowledge its origin at all, especially while being given undeserved credit for it, is just showing Black women, yet again, that we don’t matter and that we will continue to be marginalized despite the fact that our culture is being stripped from us just to be made popular in the mainstream, a place where we are consistently excluded.
What is incredibly disappointing about this cultural appropriation discussion is that there are actually Black men who think Black women are being hypocritical when we complain about the cultural appropriation of our hairstyles simply because some of us choose to wear weaves or dye our hair blonde, for example. Don’t get me wrong, I have heard White people make these same outrageous statements, but it’s ridiculous to me that people in our own community, who should know better, would even utter these things.
There are so many inaccuracies in these assertions. First of all, most of the time, Black women wear weaves and dye our hair because it is fun to be able to change our hair up and create new styles. Hair is a huge part of our community, and weaves and dyes are a part of it. Besides, other cultures wear weaves and dye their hair too. Even if there is that rare Black woman who wears weaves or dyes her hair because she literally wants to be like a White woman, this is still not cultural appropriation – it’s distressing and unfortunate.
Here is why Black women with weaves and light hair aren’t appropriating White culture. A weave is not inherent to White culture or any one culture, and neither is straight hair or light colored hair. In fact, Black people are born with blonde hair and with straight hair all the time. Additionally, straight, blonde hair isn’t a cultural practice, but it is a physical attribute that may be associated with a particular ethnic group, whether this is an accurate association or not.
On the other hand, the practice of styling one’s hair in cornrows is historically and primarily associated with Black culture because of the fact that they were originally styled on Black people’s hair because of the texture it often has. White and other people with non-African ancestry did not cornrow their hair until they saw us do it. I have heard people of non-African descent say that when they were children, they thought that Black babies were born with cornrows because they had never seen them before and didn’t understand how they were created. So there is no question that Black people can claim the hairstyle as their own since other cultures didn’t possess the context for them until they saw them on us. Generally, one cannot culturally appropriate a trait or a practice whose origin isn’t inherent or exclusive to a particular group of people, like blonde or straight hair, because it isn’t what makes the group of people unique.
But there is yet another aspect to this. For a trait or practice to be subject to appropriation, it doesn’t just need to be distinguishing or inherent, it should also be viewed in a negative light when observed in the culture that owns it. Let’s go back to the Kardashians. The sisters have been known for artificially enhancing their bottoms and their lips to make them fuller, both physical attributes that are associated with people of color, Black and Latina, specifically. You might ask, well how is this cultural appropriation if they are physical traits and not practices and are also not 100% exclusive to one culture? The answer to that is simple. People of color have been looked down upon by the mainstream for having full lips and curvy bodies. This has happened as recently as a few months ago when a Black woman with full lips was featured in a MAC cosmetics ad and was viciously attacked with racially offensive comments on social media because of her full lips. Blonde, straight hair has never been seen as anything but a thing of beauty in American culture. Even the “dumb blonde” stereotype, which is normally perpetrated by other privileged people in the same cultural group, is not anything compared to the hateful reactions to our so-called ethnic features, that is, when we have them.
Our bodies have suffered terrible crimes, both verbal and physical, throughout the decades simply because they did not fit into America’s standards of beauty. Our little girls and boys have had to endure merciless bullying in their classrooms and playgrounds because of the unique texture of their hair. As adults we are told over and over again that our natural hair is just not good enough. It is no wonder that some see the mainstream now taking these things and pasting them onto more acceptable White faces and bodies as no less than hateful mockery.
Because of the mainstream’s distaste of our natural characteristics, many Black women do purposely try to make their hair resemble White women’s hair. This is a direct result of the pressure they face to assimilate into a culture that does not accept them for who they are. Up until very recently, Black men and women weren’t allowed to wear their hair in natural styles if they wanted a job in the corporate world, no matter how qualified they were. Changing your hair for a job or because society tells you that is the only way that you will be embraced is not cultural appropriation. Oftentimes, it’s not even a choice and cultural appropriation is always a choice, even if it’s a choice based on ignorance.
The problem is not simply the act of borrowing from our culture, it is that we are never given credit for it. My message to people who appropriate my culture as a Black-American woman is this:
Acknowledge that when we ourselves have done many of these things exclusive to our culture, it has been looked down upon and criticized. Understand that now that people are giving you accolades for these things after you stole them from us, we are rightfully offended. Do not take from us without the knowledge and respect that we did it first. Instead of smuggling our fashions and hairstyles into venues that will not have us, the very people whose bodies (and hair) hold the keys to these treasures that your people so covet, use the opportunity to invite us into these spaces and use it to learn a bit about our culture, just as we’ve been forced to learn about and assimilate into yours. It is true that many of us have decided to stop vying for mainstream acceptance, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less when our culture is taken from us and whitewashed – in effect erasing the very things that make us who we are. And to those supposed allies who so often turn against us, stop contributing to the problem by criticizing Black women who have harnessed and recreated our Black culture to the best of our abilities, under the watchful eyes of those that oppress us and in a world that doesn’t look like us but wishes that it did.
That is why cultural appropriation matters to me. It is not just an innocent fashion trend or a cool hairstyle, it is what makes me who I am. Being a Black woman in America comes with a lot of baggage that does not get lighter just because my hair looks cute or my #ootd gets 5,000 likes the way it does for those that can put it on as a costume and just as easily choose take it off at the end of the day as if it meant nothing more than the superficial construct they thought it represented.