Appropriation? Culture Vultures? What does it all mean?
Appropriation of black culture has become one of the most desensitized forms of oppression. It’s in our daily lives on the TV, the radio, in magazines; you can’t escape the allusions and references to black culture. And I get it, black people are really cool and everything we make is dope. But imagine this, you’re a sixteen year old insecure black girl attending school at a predominantly caucasian High School and the only exposure to black culture your peers engage in, is when they dress up in cornrows, hoops, and chains to depict themselves as prisoners on Halloween. The dreaded over-association of minorities and criminal activity. Of course I can just roll my eyes and turn the other cheek, but appropriation of black culture on other levels has actual consequences.
Don’t touch my braids!
Before we get started with real life examples of appropriation, we must familiarize ourselves with the symbols of black culture. I would argue, braids being the most well-known and cherished. Braids were worn by African women to define age, class, marital status, and more.
Braided styles have the same assets that make items in other cultures and religions sacred (like the Native American headdress or a Hindu Bindi). As Africans were kidnapped and brought into America as slaves, braids learned to serve a more functional purpose. African women needed a hairstyle that would last weeks if not longer and tight cornrows or fulani braids were the way to go. To continue, braids became more intricate as African women used them to draw slave maps atop each others heads. Braids became a tool to escape the wretched atrocities of slavery in the south. Throughout the evolution of the braid its presence in the lives of African woman was constantly threatened. During these atrocious decades braids were the only piece of identity these women had, and white slave owners would shave their heads and cut their tresses in attempt to strip that away. Modernly when white women claim our braids, it feels eerily similar.
Other Cultural Symbols
It is important to understand the ownership black culture has over other various symbols as well. There are a lot of black style staples that have been popularized in street wear as well as hip hop culture by African Americans that very much serve a functional and and fashionable purpose. For example, the silk durag, used to give thicker hair textures a “wavy” appearance, has become a coined look in hip hop pop culture. As well as the ‘chain’, heavy jewelry, lettered gold necklaces, afros, hoop earrings, laid edges, dreads, slang/ adlibs, and coffin nails to name a few. All of these styles have deep historical and socioeconomic roots in African American culture, though that is not the direction of this piece in particular.
What in the Kim Kardashian?
Let’s turn our attention to the holy grail of social media and pop culture: Kim Kardashian-West. Ms. Kardashian-West has created a luxurious life for herself solely based on her image. She has in fact created her own brands like KKW Beauty, subscription-based lifestyle app KIM KARDASHIAN-WEST, addictive game app Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, and her failed clothing-line business venture with her siblings DASH. But it’s undeniable that her greatest draw is her image. Her full lips and curvy shape generates envy from less than curvaceous women and adoration from puppy dog eyed men. Yet, women of color have been ridiculed and reduced for having these same features. I personally have grown up being called “monkey lips” and mine are half the size of Kardashian’s.
This problem stems from society getting (and paying for) their “black culture fix” from anyone but black people. She gets magazine cover after event appearances appropriating our culture and styles we popularize. For example, in 2018 Kim hit the MTV TV and Movie Awards red carpet sporting sleek black Fulani braids.
When award season rolls around every year black artists have to fight to be seen at these shows, so its stings like lemon in a fresh wound when white women show up to these events copping our styles when black women are in the wings begging to be seen. Kim furthered the outrage by attributing her new ‘do to Bo Derek, a white woman who also appropriated fulani braids in the 1970s movie 10.
Woman of color are outraged because style icons like Leiklei, Lizzo, and Sza (just to name a very select few) who work hard to develop their own unique derivatives of our culture, are beat out by these overpaid white women who use their platform to cop our style and erase our story; credit is never given where credit is due.
The Rules of the Road
I’ll be the first one to admit that the lines between cultural appropriation and appreciation are often mangled, blurred, and difficult to navigate. Though there are a few guidelines regarding the appropriation of black culture that are best to follow: if you are doing it to make money (or know you could make money off of it) — don’t do it, give credit where credit is due, everything about hair is off limits (and yes that includes those #cute cornrows you get on your summer vacation to Mexico!), and don’t associate our culture with negativity. And in a perfect world, these are what those rules look like in action. Public Figures won’t take paid roles from black people which would be someone turning down an acting job for a movie based on a book where the main character is supposed to be African American, or a white model stepping away from a project where she’s meant to wear dreads.
If a person who is not of color wants to give recognition to or support staples in black style, they would make sure to highlight the black designers and stylists who made it happen or the influences they get their style from to redirect the attention they receive to spotlight underrecognized black artists. Also, everyone should just agree to never ever put a cornrow, box braid, or afro in their head if they are not of color. Period. Lastly, if you want to dress up like a prisoner for halloween don’t do it in cornrows and hoops.
Hate to Break it to You, Billie Eilish isn’t Problematic
Though it may not seem like it Billie Eilish, pop music’s favorite culture vulture, is a different story. We all look at this girl’s exterior and instantly assume the worst. She is completely decked out in every single black hip-hop symbol I’ve listed thus far and she’s very, very white. She is almost always adorned in designer oversized pieces, heavy jewelry, hoops, and chains.
She even went as far as to take a trip down to Icebox where Atlanta’s own black hip hop icons have received their legendary pieces, for her own customized rings and chains. But there is something very different about Eilish that sets her apart from known appropriators. The sixteen year old goes out of her way to shine light on black artists and designers who have influenced and aided her stylistic vision. She has given black designers the recognition that they deserve such as Don C and Virgil Abloh. She even gave an interview to Rolling Stone Styled, where she atributted her fashion vision to her own African American idols Tyler the Creator and Childish Gambino.
On the same token, with her voice as her true money maker, she makes music completely different from the rap and hip hop popularized by black culture. At her shows she is happily moshing to her unique alternative and techno sounds as well as strumming to her alternative trap beats on her ukelele. With an otherwise nearly unproblematic record and an unbraided uncrimped head, as far as the loose rules go, Billie is walking the straight and narrow.
What does it mean about us
Now that we have gone through the right and wrong ways to celebrate black culture we must ask ourselves the big question, why does this happen anyways? And what does it all mean? I won’t pretend like I know the answer 100%. What I can say though, is that African Americans have been creating trends since we’ve had the time and ability to create. Our history of pain and suffering that ripples through time inspires our stylistic outlets.
Truth be told, pop culture has a difficult time celebrating black culture from black people themselves. Seemingly, because of its close ties to expressing the oppression of black people. For example, everyone loves Beyonce. When Formation was released it rose to the top of the charts. Everyone was ogling over Beyonce’s waist-length honey blonde box-braids in the visual images. But once the video behind the song was published, there was immediate backlash because it was “too political”. Pop culture finds it easier to celebrate the things it loves about African American culture from white folks who won’t push our agenda.
Why is it such a big deal?
Navigating the rights and wrongs of appropriation has become quite an illustrious task, and I’m sure you have asked yourself at least once throughout this composition, why does any of this matter? Why is this girl making such a big deal out of cultural appropriation? I’ll leave you with this:
Cultural appropriation will always hurt someone mentally and fiscally. Suppose an emotional approach does nothing for you, let’s look at the numbers. The pay gap is a real thing in every single industry, though white women get paid 79 cents to a white man’s dollar black women only make 63. Not to mention the socioeconomic barriers and cyclical nature of poverty that traps people of color to the bottom. When white men and women use our culture in ways that only furthers themselves, black people lose that opportunity to have their hard-work awarded and recognized. These opportunities are integral in the growth of our community because we have to work so much harder due to these socioeconomic barriers. Cultural appropriation would be a whole different ball game if black people were given the respect and pay that we deserve, but that is not the case and everytime our ideas are appropriated it’s that much harder to reach success. Until then let us keep creating, owning our styles, and popularizing trends; putting in the work so that someday we can have a chance.