Cultural Appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by people not of that culture. Often, the original meaning of these cultural elements is lost or distorted, and such displays are often viewed as disrespectful by members of the originating culture, or even as a form of desecration. –Wikipedia
I wanted to blog about this subject because there was a situation that happened recently that really bothered me. A young black sister from my congregation complimented me on my hair—I have in goddess braids. Personally, I don’t always wear braids but I was taking a vacation and I needed my hair in a manageable style. If you know anything about black hair then you know that water and humidity can be a devastating combination. Sorry, I digress.
She went on to tell me that she got into a debate with a classmate about cornrows. Her classmate told her that she wanted boxer braids like hers. This young woman told her classmate that they were called cornrows. The classmate informed her, that no, they were Kim Kardashian boxer braids.
Now, if you know anything about black culture you can understand why this would bother me. Cornrows have been a staple style in our culture for centuries. They’ve also been used as a reason to discriminate against black women. I’ve personally had someone say that they were “too ethnic.”
What can be said?
Some think cultural appropriation is a way for people of color to keep racism alive. They say that the U.S is made up of different ethnicities and because of this, cultural groups will inevitably influence each other. We in America come from diverse communities and will undoubtedly pick up the customs, dialect, and traditions of cultural groups that surround us.
However, cultural appropriation has very little to do with one’s exposure to and familiarity with different cultures. Instead, cultural appropriation typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups. And the appropriating culture typically has little understanding of the less privileged group’s history, experience, or traditions. The majority culture typically refers to this as “borrowing” from the minority culture.
What’s the Problem?
Cultural appropriation robs minority groups of the credit they deserve. In the 1950s, white musicians borrowed the musical stylings of their black counterparts. Because African Americans weren’t widely accepted in U.S. society at that time, record executives chose to have white recording artists replicate the sound of black musicians. This led to musical forms such as rock-n-roll being largely associated with whites in spite of the fact that black musicians were pioneers of the art form. This move also had financial consequences, as many of the black musicians who helped pave the way for rock-n-roll’s success never saw a dime for their contributions to the music. Music that originated with minority groups come to be associated with members of the dominant group. As a result, the dominant group is deemed innovative and edgy, while the disadvantaged groups they “borrow” from continue to face negative stereotypes that imply they’re lacking in intelligence and creativity. In addition, when members of a dominant group appropriate the cultures of others, they often reinforce stereotypes about minority groups.
For those of you out there that think this is crazy and that it’s a compliment for someone to “imitate” your style. Consider that blacks are consistently discriminated against because of our style. Taking the aforementioned style as an example, it is still considered by some employers to be unprofessional to wear cornrows or even to wear our natural hair. Just think about it. You are constantly told that your hairstyles are too ethnic or too exotic, that maybe you should think about being more approachable. But as soon a white girl wears the same style they call it edgy and chic and they get to change the name and claim it as their own.
Cultural Exchange vs. Cultural Appropriation
Racial inequality has evolved into something more than just discriminating based on the color of the skin—it’s become even more how a race represents themselves. Different races represent themselves through cultural means, but when others try to adopt it, it can be offensive or appreciative. The idea of borrowing another’s culture is often termed “cultural exchange,” something that has been prevalent throughout history, so it’s difficult to claim appropriation even if that person doesn’t belong to that culture. The difference is that while exchange implies a two-way appreciation and acknowledgment of cultural differences, appropriation refers to a dominant culture receiving the praise and credit for taking on characteristics of a minority culture—all while dehumanizing or mocking the minority culture for these very characteristics.
In the U.S., the main targets for cultural appropriation are blacks, whose African-rooted hairstyles, such as dreadlocks, braids, or Bantu knots, are now characterized as fashionable or “trendy” when worn by non-blacks. In this case, the dominant culture retains power by shifting the blame to black culture—they say that black women wear their hairstyles, so why is it a problem for them to wear ours. However, when black women try and wear their cultural hairstyles they’re held to European beauty standards and told that they look unprofessional.
What can we do?
Messages such as those expressed by Amandla Stenberg, who spoke about her own knowledge and disgruntled feelings about Kylie Jenner appropriating black women features on social media. Amanda’s message was reached by many and educate others on why it is wrong to steal the identities of races or cultures. Stenberg’s message is to approach stopping cultural appropriation by showing others how appropriation is offensive and “disgusting.” To avoid being called out, try not to gain glory or likes by posting it online. Instead, try to understand more about it. Wear it where appropriate. For example, your friend of Indian descent is getting married and asks you to be her bridesmaid. If she asks you to wear a saree or lehenga because it is part of her wedding customs, then wear one. Another positive example was when Angelina Jolie was traveling in the middle east and chose to wear a hijab in respect for the traditions of that area.
We all need to do more to address the issue of cultural appropriation that our society has become so comfortable accepting. Knowledge is power and we can all learn from another’s culture. When we show deep respect and give that culture credit for their contribution for making the world a better place we can all share in the beauty that comes from having a diverse world.
What you can do:
- Educate Yourself
- Don’t do it for the “Gram” – (Glory or likes)
- Give credit where credit is due