Over the past year, cultural appropriation has become a hot topic. A quick glance at its trends over the past ten years reveals that the word was not new in 2014 however it’s popularity catapulted during that year and has been growing ever since. Celebrities such as Kylie Jenner, Iggy Azalea, Madonna, and countless others have been the inspiration behind many think pieces exploring the topic of cultural appropriation contributing to its new found place in common vocabulary. Rachel Dolezal sparked conversations about the complexities of cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation, and the construction of race and now Beyonce’s recent feature in the new Coldplay video Hymn For the Weekend while dressed in Indian attire has furthered the discussion.
And while many of us can find the word itself on our Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr timelines and dashboards, many are still confused as to what cultural appropriation even means.
Cultural appropriation is…
Cultural appropriation simply speaking is the plagiarism of another culture. Plagiarism, according to Google, is “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” Cultural appropriation is stealing someone else’s culture and/or cultural elements and stripping it of its history and origins. However, appropriation can be and is complex, just like many of our lives and identities. As said by Everyday Feminism writer, Maisha Z. Johnson, “A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” This means that cultural appropriation can not only be committed by individuals but can occur at large systemic levels.
Cultural appropriation as in…
As mentioned before, many celebrities have perpetuated cultural appropriation. One of Hollywood’s most notable examples is the appropriation of cornrows. Cornrows are a style of braids, which consists of braiding the hair into neat rows, sometimes forming designs and/or patterns. Cornrows originated in Africa and are used by Black folks/people of the African diaspora to protectively style their hair. While cornrows are a Black style created by Black folks for their hair textures, the style has been seen on many non-Black people. Christina Aguilera, Katy Perry, and Kylie Jenner are several of these people. The issue doesn’t lie solely with non-Black and white people wearing this hairstyle. It is the fact they are often applauded for wearing this style, while Black people, most often Black women, are shunned for doing so.
For example in April of 2014, Marie Claire tweeted a picture of Kendall Jenner with the caption, “Kendall Jenner takes bold braids to a new epic level.” In the photograph, Jenner is pictured with about six small braids, plaited back to her ears and then the rest of her is down. The section of cornrows are small and simple, and by all means are not extravagant or bold by most people’s standards. While Kendall was praised for adopting such a simplistic style, Black women were/are losing their jobs and Black children are being threatened with expulsion for the same.
The wearing of braids has societal implications favoring those that appropriate this style for cool points and penalizes those who need this hairstyle to protect and maintain their hair.
Another example of cultural appropriation is the widespread co-opting of AAVE. African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics, is a dialect of English most commonly used by Black Americans. Some say the history of AAVE is tied to the early days of the colonization in this country, with enslaved Africans developing this language as they learned English and it was mixed with their native languages. While AAVE is a historical and cultural way of speaking for many Black folks, it is seen as the new fun and trendy way of speaking by white people.
An article published on PopSugar’s site titled “10 New Slang Terms to Memorize If You Want to Stay Cool” was mostly comprised of words and phrases created by Black people, most notably Black women and femmes, and many of the words were more than 10 years old. While these words and many others such as fleek, turnt, and twerk have been adopted and presented by white society as trendy and new, they have long been used by Black folks. And most times these words and other AAVE specific words have been used against Black folks to question their intelligence with AAVE being seen as ‘broken English.’
Cultural appropriation is a white and black thing…
Cultural appropriation is not only perpetuated by white people against Black folks. Cinco de Mayo, the wearing of Native and Indigenous headdresses and clothing, and the exotification of Muslim women’s garments are examples of other people of color’s cultures and traditions being appropriated. And the complexities of cultural appropriation can reveal the conflicting relationship between the hatred of a category of people and an obsessive objectification of their culture.
Anti-immigration propaganda in the U.S. may claim to be coming from a place of concern for national security, but it has been more obvious that anti-immigration policies and rhetoric are targeting certain people…Latinos. And while it may have been understood in the past that anti-immigration sentiments were racially coded anti-Latino sentiments, more folks have become transparent and vocal about how they feel about not only Latino immigrants, but Latinos in general. For instance, Donald Trump has on several occasions in front of cameras said racially charged comments and stereotypes against Latino folks and has gained popularity in the polls.
And this nationwide anti-Latino sentiment is juxtaposed against the objectification of Chola style within pop culture. Chola style derives from Mexican Americans from the Southwest. As described by Hellabreezy, “an Oakland-based model and modern-day chola” for Vice, “The chola, the female counterpart of the cholo, was a ‘working-class, young Mexican American female from the barrios of the southwest with a very distinct aesthetic, style, and attitude.’” Although Chola style and culture is distinctly from Mexican-American women, the style has been made popular in larger society by white celebrities and fashion runways with white models. And white folks are not the only people appropriating Chola style. Nicki Minaj and Rihanna have both appropriated this style.
This issue with cultural appropriation is not only that it erases the history and origins of a cultural aspect or element. It also reduces these often cultural responses to oppression and struggle to nothing more than costumes that can be put on and taken off by appropriators at their leisure. While those who are the originators can not do this and are often marginalized because of their style, traditions, and cultures. It allows appropriators to play dress up with the cultures of other folks and never have to deal with the societal implications of being those folks.
Cultural appropriation or appreciation…
With there being countless examples of cultural appropriation and it being ingrained into our society, the question arises “can people appreciate another culture without appropriating it?” As Amandla Stenberg explains in her video Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows, “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they are partaking in.”
If our admiration of another culture looks more like putting on a costume or a racist portrayal versus respecting that culture, then that’s appropriation. If we are not recognizing our societal privilege and adopting someone else’s culture as if though it’s our own, that’s cultural appropriation.
Cultural appreciation is possible and it can be as simple as consulting with Google to understand whether what we are doing is appropriation or appreciation. As Zendaya Coleman says, “You can go about it as cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation…I’m not going to try something unless I’ve taken the time and effort to learn about it. I just think with the Internet and the resources we have, you should do a little research.”
Understanding cultural appropriation is complex, but it can be as simple as taking the time to research and understand the culture at hand and listening to the people within that culture as the experts.
[Feature Image: Singer Katy Perry poses in front of a purple background. Perry’s hair is braided to the back in plait braids with green hair mixed in and front hair gelled down. Perry’s lips are pursed as she looks straight ahead with a cellphone in hand. Perry is wearing a white button down shirt with a pick collar and buttons. Image: Youtube]