13: Cultural Appropriation / by LaQuann Dawson

So the topic has been coming up a lot lately and I've seen confused faces left and right about it. What is cultural appropriation? It is just hair, right? Just clothes with fancy patterns, just jewelry, right? I am going to do my best at explaining what cultural appropriation is and share why and how my people get offended by it.

Hair by Nelly (nellym.com) - Photo by me.

First off, cultural appropriation, at its most basic definition, is when one culture adopts elements from another. America is a melting pot of diverse culture and people who often rub off on one another, which in many ways can be a good thing. Cultural appropriation, however, is an issue, a very complex issue, that deserves fair conversation. Part of it depends on the context, and keep in mind that this is a subjective issue, a lot of us might not agree. Even still, people are being offended so it needs to be addressed and understood.

I like speaking in examples, it's a little easier for me to explain things sometimes. Lets say for instance we are speaking about cultural appropriation in fashion (clothes, hairstyles, etc.). Let us say that there is this sweet white girl who wants to rock cornrows (hair that is braided very close to the scalp in rows). Cornrows are a hairstyle that originates from ancient Africa and have been carried into African culture today. This hairstyle is often associated with words like "ghetto" or "hood" or with someone who comes from prison or from a bad neighborhood. People clutch their purses when walking next to a black man with cornrows. Black people have been shamed for years for a hairstyle. We are denied jobs for wearing this natural hairstyle. We are spoken down upon and all in all we are treated differently and viewed negatively by society for wearing braids. So back to the white girl. She decides one day that she likes the cornrows and wants to wear the style. She gets them done, and the very next day headlines are blazing "Becky Starts a New Trend!", "Check Out These Fashion Forward Braid Rows!", "Learn How To Rock Your Own Braided Rows", "Ghetto Chic!".

And just like that, a hair style that has been deemed one thing when my culture used it, is now a trend. A trend stripped from its culture and wiped clean of any association with the words "ghetto" or "hood" and replaced with "cute" and "trendy". I saw a meme online recently and it explained cultural appropriation in one simple sentence (excuse the loose quote). It went something like this: Cultural appropriation is like when you have an idea for a project and you turn it in and get an F, then someone else (of a different culture or skin color or whatever) turns in the exact same project and gets an A and credit for the idea.

So my F is your A.

This white girl is being praised as edgy and innovative by magazines and blogs and girls everywhere now aspire to be like her and rock this hair style. All without the worries of being labeled a thug or a criminal. Sure it is just hair. But to be quite honest, it is not just hair. My people have issues with this and I hope by now you can already see why. I am sure this white girl is a lovely person with good intentions but it is even bigger than her. This is about white privilege and while you cannot help with the privilege you were born with, you can use it positively to help other cultures rise. But why would you want to? That isn't your responsibility, right? Then my dear, please continue wearing your cornrows but please do not be confused about why others are offended by it. But could you see why many of us feel it is unfair for someone to be able to pick and choose what they like from a culture and carry on without having to align themselves with the history or consequences that are associated with that element? Not having to deal with understanding what it's like to be born with hair that is the butt of many jokes and without having to feel oppressed yet again.

What is going on here is more than borrowing a hairstyle, and it is more than appreciating it. What is actually going on is my hypothetical white girl is exercising her privilege and exploiting another culture. Again, this issue isn't her fault alone because it is a societal issue and this girl saw something she liked and naturally she wanted it for herself. Not on purpose but what she and society are saying is that black people have cool hair, but they themselves are not.

Cultural appropriation is an issue and it is an issue that a lot of people misunderstand it to say that cultures cannot share or appreciate different elements from another culture but that is not what it is.

And I know what a lot of you might be thinking "well if getting cornrows is culturally appropriating then so is straightening your hair" - False. People of color are constantly frowned upon for wearing their culture in public. Afros, cornrows, bindis, hijabs, etc. all head-turners that for some reason make society uncomfortable. Also all things that people try to turn into trends and suck dry of their cultural association. Black people are turned down jobs for wearing afros, locks, braids, etc. because they are deemed "inappropriate". My little brothers and sisters are being kicked out of schools, threatened with expulsion if they do not cut their "distracting" natural hair (link link link link link link). We are constantly pressured to fit some Eurocentric idealized look and so no, straightening our hair is not cultural appropriating. A lot of times it is a means of survival that was pushed upon us.

So is there a way to appreciate a culture without appropriating it? Of course there is, do a little research. We have been blessed with eyes to read, ears to listen, and google for everything else, lets take advantage of it. Sure, you could give credit to the culture you are borrowing from but in all honestly that won't make things much better. Like I said before, this is a lot bigger than just one white girl wanting braids. There is a structure in American society that has built and for many years has been been working, a structure that says people of color don't matter and their culture is scary and bizarre and unprofessional. If you ask why this issue is just now becoming a big thing I would say it is because we are getting sick of the oppression and not interested in letting people get away with such disproportionate standards. You can appreciate a culture without appropriating it for sure, things like going to your Asian friend's wedding and wearing some of the traditional clothing that are normally associated with such a a ceremony. I think you need to have some education and a degree of permission to do such a thing. This is not, however, the same as your one black friend giving you permission to wear cornrows.

Now I will be the first to say, I think we are all guilty of cultural appropriation to some degree without even realizing it. Buying something labeled a "kimono" cause it looks cool without even understanding what a Kimono actually is, what makes one up or why people wear them. Wearing a bindi to Coachella because it is cute and brings out your eyes. Buying a dashiki with your favorite number on it because you saw Beyoncé wear one. In fashion cultural appropriation is very common and sometimes we can't help it but if we take a second to understand why what we are doing is offensive to someone, especially a large group of people, our divide in this country can be significantly lessened. This can be argued all kinds of ways and it is almost not necessary if we just take a few minutes to listen and understand. We shouldn't be so defensive all of the time and so quick to get offended at other people being offended. What sense does that make?

We've all done it, and whether you continue to do it or not is up to you but it is so important to at least attempt to understand the ways that you are oppressing or offending someone. Having respect for the people and the cultures that surround us daily is what is going to lift our society. We need to be patient with one another and listen. We all get offended at different things and we can't really help it and it is a feeling that is hard to ignore. So my advice is to ask a friend, and if you think something might be cultural appropriation, ask a friend, google it, do some research first just to be safe. Wearing a piece of jewelry on your forehead or braiding your hair is not worth disrespecting an entire culture. You will not die if you don't ever get to wear corn rows, I promise.

Don't be afraid to call someone out if they're disrespecting a culture, they might not even know it and you both might learn something. Hell I'm probably doing it now without knowing. But be patient, you don't need to cuss out every white girl with braids a bindi and a fringe vest. I'd like to be clear in that in a perfect world, this would be "just hair" but under the circumstances that is not so. I would love to see the sharing of cultures full circle, and not give a shit about how someone does their hair. But when something so clearly is thrown in your face saying that you do not matter and credit and praise is given to someone else where it could never exist for you, you start to care and you start to talk about it. This is not pointless whining and this is not us saying that cultures cannot be shared and mixed. It is just that in current situations and with the media being as wildly active as it is, we cannot possibly ignore the issue and allow ourselves to be erased. At least I can't. It has happened so many times since America was "discovered" and it leaves people being bitter. I will not pen an essay and allow someone else to put their name on it without my voice being heard.

For someone to say that it is just a hairdo clearly has some degree of privilege that allows that to be true for them. Like many others, hair styles are not the number one item to debate about on my agenda, but that is not to say that it is not important or relevant because it is. It is relevant and it is not "just a hairdo" for everyone. We do not live in equality, the luxury of it being "just a hairdo" is not granted to all. For a lot of people it is a hairdo with a side of judgment, dirty looks, countless job interviews and a big ass stereotype. So if it is just a hairdo to you, then congratulations and please enjoy yourself.

So that's my piece and shout out to my friend Nelly (nellym.com) for braiding my hair. Multi talented human being, man.

Stay lit, respect women, respect and appreciate culture, promote equality, love yourself, forgive yourself, have a good week, and text your mom even though she might not reply.

- Lackwhen.