Why Defending Your Cultural Appropriation is Dangerous

“Shared or Stolen: An Examination of Cultural Appropriation” — Image courtesy of artist: Shannon Wright

Last year I was appointed the Home-Alone-face-grabbing task of trying to explain cultural appropriation to my employer, who was receiving severe, yet deserved, backlash after a post on the company’s social media page. In it, a very fair skinned, blonde model donned some hairstylist’s combination of dreads and box braids. In the midst of the company’s confusion and apparent frustration from the responses, I tried my best to explain why they were experiencing this massive exodus and disapproval from fans/followers. — Especially considering these fans were very culturally aware, young, amazingly outspoken women privy to the internet and all of its platforms.

My approach began from a place of recognition.

Explaining that while I understood there are other forms of cultural appropriation in various parts of society (food, makeup, music, etc…) Fashion, which was the industry they chose to be a part of, was EXTRAORDINARILY effected. In an attempt to get him to relate or at least find some semblance of understanding, I specifically brought up the troths of festival goers who carelessly threw on dashikis, marked their heads with bindis, wrapped in saris, and posed for selfies in headdresses every summer.

No luck.

Fashion houses have numerous models walk the runway in shows using style, construction, and crafts that are “elevated” from their cultural inspiration. With such influence the larger designers have on how it trickles down to retailers, they could take a positive step forward by collaborating with the community from where these outfits are inspired. Or in the very least, have solid representation in the casting of their models.

Taking an ABC approach, I defined the differences between appropriation vs. assimilation and the very fine line of appreciation.

Nothing.

Then, in hopes of connecting to him on a personal level, I even expressed what it meant to me as a half-Black woman, and my own struggles to try and match society’s “ideal” beauty standards while I was growing up. The below are a few of the responses I was met with…verbatim.

“If someone pulls from a culture, it’s a compliment.”

“Bob Marley had dreads because it was a trend.”

“It’s just hair.”

“There are worse things to worry about.”

“I don’t see color.”

“We get it, you’re Black.”

Que: Open mouthed, wide eyed, is this real life? Expression, reading all over my face.

Instead of listening, my employer immediately went on the defense.

The rest of the conversation, as well as the very short time I was employed there (yes, unfortunately I stayed post discussion) went rapidly downhill. In a last ditch effort, I tried to use business to find logic. I explained the complexities of Black hair and the challenges appropriation and lack of understanding forced Black women to face with many companies. Black women (as well as other women of color) are not only being told that their natural beauty is undesirable but they’re also being shown that it is unacceptable in the workplace and deemed inappropriate. Yet, Black women continue to see images in fashion, magazines, music, and all across the media of their natural beauty removed from their brown skin and its meaning.

Lara Oddofin

Herein lies an unfortunate truth: Job prospects are either on the line or being lost because of our hair. About two weeks ago, a Bournemouth University graduate, Lara Odoffin, received an ultimatum in the form of a letter from a potential employer — Remove her large twists or they would not be able to offer her any work. Now, I dare you to do a Google image search for ‘professional hairstyles’ and ‘non professional hairstyles.’

…Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

It cannot be denied — The majority of the latter are Black women wearing their hair either naturally or done in culturally prided styles.

Let’s change Lara’s race for a moment, and instead acknowledge the employers probable point that it was really about the hairstyle. How would the situation be handled?

Employer: I’m sorry we cannot allow this hairstyle in the workplace.

Lara: Ok, I can remove them.

Simple fix to a problem in which an image didn’t align with the company. The employer sees this as a trend because that’s what they believe it to be. However, it is far from the case. While others are being rewarded for “rocking” parts of someone else’s deep rooted culture, with little to no knowledge or understanding, the communities from which they are pulling are being reprimanded. This along with the images shown in media says: This is acceptable and trendy…ONLY if you have fair skin. Black culture, along with so many others, are being used as costumes. And at the end of the day, those that are ignorantly “rocking” these “trends” can do something we cannot — take them off. We cannot take off our skin or remove our oppressed history.

You want to take part in this but remain uninvolved?

Do you know what comes with it?

The same internal eye roll I experience when I hear, “I’m not (fill in the blank), I have (X amount of) Black friends.” Resurfaces every time someone says to me, “I love your hair, I’ve always wanted an afro.” Thank you kind person for your genuine compliment that should have ended there, because the rest only perpetuates the fact that you may lack knowledge of your entitlement. What this misguided comment actually sounds like to me is, “Yes, I like that. I will have that. Regardless of its origins and struggles that might come with it. I don’t know why you do that nor will I take the time to learn, but I like it. Gimme that.”

That blind entitlement is the foundation in which a person’s defense can begin to grow and also find a distorted justification, when confronted. Oftentimes when someone is called out for appropriation by the community from which they’re stealing — they take offense and go on the defense. Responding aggressively or decidedly taking an uninvolved stance through passive language. Such as chocking it up to, “There are bigger issues.”

This is dangerous.

Image from 1940’s Clark Doll Test

The lack of honest listening and empathy is replaced with an automated defense, is incredibly problematic because it is disguised entitlement. And that entitlement is systemic, meaning it has become ingrained in our society so much so that it’s second nature and done without thought. The public images of stolen culture being reapplied to the majority, paired with the effect of these aggressions and dismissive responses can have an incredible consequence on a young person’s psyche and can also influence how they value their self worth. If you aren’t already familiar with Dr. Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s psychological experiments in the 1940’s known as the Clark Doll Test, study up and get to know it. The results of this test, which had Black children choose between a White and Black doll based on which they thought were more intelligent, ‘nice’, ‘bad’, pretty, etc…Clearly showed that the children felt inferior, bringing to light the internalized racism shaping these young minds. This negative development continues to remain constant through generations, and still rings true today. In 2006, 17 yr. old Kiri Davis created a 7 min. documentary called, Kiri Davis: A Girl Like Me, where she re-examined Dr. Clark’s historic test. The results ran parallel with that of the test from the 1940’s.

A still from 2006 Kiri Davis: A Girl Like Me — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0BxFRu_SOw

This inferiority complex is important to note. Violence and oppression breed off of keeping a group of individuals complacent and not only feeling but believing they are lesser than the majority. Cultural appropriation is a non issue for a majority that don’t understand its relationship to power. Many people, not all of them White, believe that cultural appropriation is unimportant. However, the history of physical battery and power couldn’t be sustained without mental battery as well. To not believe that a dismissive response to appropriation or groundless offense is not systemic and inherent in our culture, only continues to promote cognitive dissonance. Franz Fanon writes in his book Black Skin, White Masks

“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”

Every aggression and overlooked discriminatory action or decision comes full circle when there is the foundation of hate. And when a group of people are historically deemed undesirable, it is easier for the oppressor to not only continue but justify violence because those they are oppressing are not seen as equals and instead, subordinate.

Please also refer to the Paper Bag Test…don’t worry, I’ll wait.