Please Appropriate My Student Fees and Not My Culture

Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another. To appropriate is a verb meaning “to take for one’s own use without permission” (OED). By implication, the act of appropriation wrongfully strips a minority culture of its group identity. It is distinct from cultural assimilation in that it refers to the adoption of these elements in an exploitative or colonial manner. There is no attempt to adopt the elements with reference to their original cultural context. When this occurs in a racial context, it triggers a sense of oppression as the original meaning, substance, and background of the thing are lost.

Media and Black Hairstyles

Many examples can be found by looking in the tabloids. When a teen star Zendaya, who is biracial (black/white), wore her hair in dreadlocks to a red-carpet event, a “Fashion Police” hostess ridiculed her. Giuliana Rancic made a racist remark about Zendaya’s locks by saying that “she probably smells of patchouli oils or weed.” Meanwhile, when Justin Bieber got dreadlocks, different kinds of online magazines praised him. Dreadlocks originating in black culture, from Egypt, are always seen as “ghetto” and “thuggish” when worn by a black person, but “hip”, “cool” and “original” when worn by a white person. Black people use dreadlocks to tame their natural hair, which will lock itself eventually, if neglected, because of its structure. The style was also once a way of opposing the Cuban government by Rastafari.

The same applies to cornrows. When, in summer 2015, Kylie Jenner was criticized for wearing cornrows, it didn’t stop the rest of the family from repeating the appropriation. Kim, Khloé, and Kylie herself have been styling their hair in cornrows (and other traditionally African hairstyles) ever since. However, neither they nor the media, have acknowledged its name. They whitewashed the style by calling it: “boxer braids”, “Dutch braids” etc. A lot of girls and boys started watching YouTube tutorials on how to get “Kim K inspired braids”, and wearing the style without knowing what it is or where it comes from.

A feature on Kim’s website

Black people have been wearing cornrows for centuries as a way of protecting their natural hair and keeping it detangled. Hence why it’s called a “protective style”. It wasn’t considered “chic” or “trendy”, nor was it hugely popular, until a white person started wearing it. Furthermore, many workplaces (and schools) banned the style, and several black people were fired. It’s as if you got an F for your coursework and then someone else copied it down from you word by word and got an A* for the exact thing. This is also why the counter-argument “what about when black women straighten their hair” doesn’t work. Often black people are put in a position by their workplaces’ or schools’ dress codes where their hair must conform to Eurocentric beauty standards such as silky straight hair. So black women straightening their hair is a matter of survival, not preference. This is called cultural assimilation.

Blackface is perhaps the most demeaning form of cultural appropriation. It started in America, in the 19th century (spreading to the U.K. in the 20th century), when white comedians started putting charcoal on their face and wearing curly wigs to perpetuate racist stereotypes of African-Americans. Those white actors gained profit by exploiting and demonizing an entire race, while black people were not even allowed to act. Blackface is still present nowadays, especially during Halloween. You might want to dress up as a black character or celebrity. However, if you need to apply black paint on your face for everyone else to understand what you are, it means that your costume is not good enough. And if you’re just going as a “black person”, then your costume is just generic and boring (someone’s culture/race/skin color is not a costume or accessory). There are no occasions when blackface would be appropriate.

Ellen’s showcased an excellent example of portraying a black celebrity without resorting to facepaint

Other cultures

Some Hindus object to the Western appropriation of yoga when there is no understanding of its tradition as a spiritual practice. The western appropriation concentrates on the physical practice without acknowledgement of meditation and breath work as spiritual acts. Yoga was originally intended to prepare the body as a foundation for unity with the spirit. Bindi, another element of Hindu culture, is heavily used as a face accessory at music festivals, without reference to its religious significance.

The main issue with celebrities who are guilty of cultural appropriation (Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Iggy Azalea, the Kardashians, Justin Bieber; to name a few) is that they often fail to use their platform to address the struggles of the black community (and other marginalized ethnicities), such as police brutality and prejudice in general. This creates an impression that people want to enjoy and use the elements that come from the black culture, without trying to contribute to or understand the black culture and experience.

Nevertheless, let’s say you want to explore another culture without appropriating it and appearing culturally insensitive, there are many ways to do so. You can show your interest by researching the culture, listening to its music, experimenting with its foods, learning its language, or visiting the countries.