When traveling to another country, it’s pretty tempting to assimilate to another culture. Not just tempting, it’s actually preferable. But what about bringing back those cultural practices and taking them out of context?
Recently, there has been a lot of talk of cultural appropriation, from Kylie Jenner wearing cornrows to women at Coachella wearing shiny beads on their foreheads or feathers around their head. And always, every Halloween, we’re lectured about the age-old, wildly offensive Pocahontas Halloween costume. You can read the most recent argument in a Teen Vogue article here.
So what even is Cultural Appropriation?
According to Wikipedia (very trust worthy new source, don’t play like you don’t use it)
“Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation is sometimes portrayed as harmful, framed as cultural misappropriation, and claimed to be a violation of the intellectual property rights of the originating culture. Often unavoidable when multiple cultures come together, cultural appropriation can include using other cultures’ traditions, fashion, symbols, language, and cultural songs without permission.”
Let’s break it down. In the melting pot that is the United States of America, what would we define as “our culture”? Hmm, kind of a hard question to answer. Every time I think of a subject, it actually only applies to a subgroup of people, such as Sperrys and Polos or Apple Bottom jeans and boots with the fur. But everyone wears sandals, right?
The modern flip-flop came from Japan and was brought to the United States after WWII when American soldiers brought this style of clothing over. Are we culturally appropriating flip-flops? Are we in “violation of the intellectual property rights of the originating culture”? Well, yea, since it wasn’t invented in America and was not originally worn by Americans, technically, yes. Yes, we are. EVERYONE TAKE OFF YOUR FLIP FLOPS!
Jk, no one is really upset about that. So, why is everyone upset about Kylie Jenner’s cornrows?
Well haters will say the Japanese aren’t discriminated against. Ok, just check out these very real Japanese concentration camps, so let’s not get into comparing struggles. The point is that we are appropriating in our every day clothing choices without even realizing it.
Zoe from Elle Est Zoe eloquently says:
“If the world wants to be OK with everyone and truly have peace, we need to be OK with some culture mixing. It’s OK if White chicks wear cornrows and chicks like me to wear haoris. It’s the first step in appreciating what’s awesome about someone not like you. It’s flattery. We can’t just get mad at one part and not all. As Americans we have all taken a piece of something from someone else and made it our own.”
But the argument behind Kylie’s braids is that it was seen as cool, fashionable, and edgy, but only because she was White. Black women have been doing cornrows for centuries. In fact it’s a protective style for their hair. Yet, our society makes Black women feel uncomfortable wearing cornrows in public and they fear being discriminated against, stereotyped, and not hired for jobs since cornrows on Black women are portrayed as ghetto, poor, or stupid. And that double standard is a very real thing.
The Teen Vogue articles seems to be saying, Black women don’t want this White girl just stealing their hair-style without even acknowledging where the style came from or even standing up for the struggles a Black person goes through. #BlackLivesMatter, anyone? I mean, since Kylie dates Black men and appropriates Black culture from injecting her lips to wearing cornrows, you’d think she could use her platform to stand up for Black men being senselessly executed by police. Or nah? She only wants to appropriate a culture when it’s convenient for her? Well, that is not cool, and you can’t do that.
Well, actually you can. People can and will do whatever the fuck they want.
Her not using her platform for awareness isn’t cool, but her character shouldn’t have anything to do with her braids.
In reality, Black women did not invent the braid. The first braid was found on the oldest female sculpture in the world The Venus of Willendorf. This bitch had a whole head of braids. And guess where they unearthed her? Austria. Birthplace of Hitler and Aryan af. Yes, the first braid was found on a White person. Well, that is reaching. This woman could have been part of a nomadic African tribe, but we can’t make any of those assumptions. The first depicted braid was found in Europe. Point blank.
It is important to separate the social concept from the fashion.
Braids have been used by all cultures and have always been decorative. Basically anyone who has hair, has had a braid at some point in their life. Vikings, Egyptians, Namibians, Indians, Incans, Chinese, you name it. Just because it benefits Black women in their hair growth process, does not mean the braid is owned by that culture. So why make such a big deal about a fucking braid, instead of addressing the real underlying problem: forced cultural assimilation.
Kylie wearing cornrows is seemingly not cool because she will not suffer the same stereotypes a Black woman or other ethnic minorities would, because she does not have to assimilate. But is that really her fault? She was born White. She didn’t choose that. And she is embracing another culture. She thinks cornrows are DOPE. And that isn’t negative at all. What we’re really mad about is our forced assimilation, not her privilege. It’s important to address systems at their core instead of arguing about hair and clothes. Instead of saying White girls can’t wear braids, how about we say WHY CAN’T WE?
Forced cultural assimilation is a type of cultural assimilation that forces minority groups into an established and generally larger community. This enforcement can be in the form of a new language, legislation, education, literature, and worship. Unlike ethnic cleansing, the local population is not forced to leave a certain area but forced to become members of the dominant society.
Forced cultural assimilation starts at birth: Our Names.
I always hate it when people use their “American” names. My mom gave me two names, an “ethnic” one and a “normal” one. And I think it is sick and disgusting that she felt she needed to do that for me. Because last I checked I was born in the United States and have a United States passport, and my name is as American as “Sally” or “Dave” ’cause I am literally as American as you can get. But she did that so that employers would not stereotype me just off of my name. She wanted to give my resume a fighting chance.
But fuck all that, I go by my ethnic one. Because you can be American and ethnic at the same time. Just like how I can say the name “Sally” or “Dave” with ease and not apply any ideas to those names before meeting them, so should people be able to say “Marquita” or “De’Shawn” or “Guadeloupe” or “Xiu-Lu” or “Mohammed,” without any thoughts about the person before meeting them. By going by your real name, you are fighting for your culture. Assimilation should not be forced onto anyone. This is the only way to normalize our “different.”
And that applies to hair.
When news channels rule out braids or schools take away hijabs, that is forced cultural assimilation. But if a White person wears braids or an Asian person wears braids, won’t it be that much harder for discrimination to take place? Or when a White girl wears boxer braids and hoops and so does a Latina and so does a Persian, won’t it be that much harder to apply “ghetto” to that style? What if we just all wore hijabs, who you gonna call a terrorist then?
Our comrades, both White and Colored, can help each other on the struggle that is discrimination, prejudice, and stereotypes. By acknowledging and celebrating our cultural differences, we close those gaps, unify, and take a step in the right direction.
Stefanie from Postcards From Stef says:
“As a person like myself, who doesn’t have roots in one place because I moved every two years growing up, who never knows what to say when someone asks me where I’m from, and who has lived in many countries, I find the accusations of cultural misappropriation frustrating. It’s like I belong everywhere and nowhere…whatever happened to the idea of imitation being the highest form of flattery? We are all human beings who have been sharing ideas with one another since the beginning.”
The Teen Vogue Article
So yes, I found myself feeling some type of way about an article in a Feminism section, in a column titled “Girl Don’t Do It” written by a Black woman entirely to tell other women what to do (or what they can’t do). As if corporate society doesn’t boss her around all day long in her Blackness, and as if we needed yet another rule to abide by. The title specifically targeting White women, “Dear White Women,” was particularly offensive, in my opinion.
I am not defending White women. White guilt and White fragility are real things. But White women aren’t the only race that culturally appropriates. We all do. By targeting ONLY White women, we continue to create division and perpetrate racism, which doesn’t move anywhere near the end goal of acceptance.
So someone saying respect is being confined to our own culture is basic. You are not taking into account people from non-homogenous backgrounds who really have no defined culture. It is completely acceptable to be fluid in going from one to the next. And honestly that’s how we all should be. You can represent who you are, while being accepting of someone or somewhere you’re not originally from (where Rachel Dolezal went wrong).
So don’t tell me what I can and cannot do on some basic shit. You will see me stunting around museums as Frida in traditional Mexican dress, or on Halloween dressed up as Pocahontas ’cause she was the first cartoon-princess to stick up to the White man, yas girl.
Yes, sometimes a bitch just wants to be a Von Trapp and I will wear my Austrian dirndl on occasion, OK? You might catch me trolloping around in my kimono on my no-bra days, and wearing cornrows and a grill to a concert, BECAUSE I LOVE CELEBRATING CULTURE AND I THINK ITS DOPE. And no, I don’t belong to anyone. But does that mean I don’t understand and am not an activist for POC rights? No, not at all. Why make that connection?
Yes, I’m very aware fictional characters and cartoons can be based off of real characters that did not have happy fates and often times romanticize colonialism. But then address exactly that. Media portrayal is powerful and perpetrates stereotypes. Don’t attack the woman next to you who is just trying to live her life and not intending offense. It’s important to understand the difference in intent.
While it is always good to learn about a culture and the significance behind those items, we should also keep in mind that those items worn out of context no longer have those significant meanings. Crystals are spiritual in some cultures, headdresses mean leadership in another, but at Coachella, those meanings no longer apply. They’ve evolved into something completely different for a different culture.
So I encourage you to call out racism when you see it, but don’t declare all cultural appropriation as racist. You don’t know what a person’s background is or life experiences just by looking at them. When in dialogue, use it as an educational moment, not one of shame.
However, Cultural Celebration is not to be mistaken as Cultural Mocking or Cultural Robbing, even though all qualify as Cultural Appropriation. You see, dressing up as Pocahontas, the character–an admirable one at that–is different than dressing up as a Native American. You cannot dress up in Black Face and “be” a Black person. You cannot wear a sombrero and a mustache and “pretend” you are a Mexican. Putting chopsticks in your hair and mimicking Asian accents will never be culturally appropriate. You cannot dress up as an ethnicity or race. So no, culture is not a costume. At that point, you are no longer celebrating culture, you are mocking it and enacting stereotypes.
Also, you are not celebrating culture if you are claiming it as your own invention. For example, Alexander Wang “came out” with airbrushed t-shirts “You Can’t Buy Anywhere” during New York Fashion Week, when really they started with the hip-hop movement 60 years ago and have been selling at the fair for $10 ever since. Or when Balmain “brought back” Bamboo earrings and sold them for $844 when I’ve been buying those from the beauty supply for $2 since I started making money and they’ve never gone away. It is not appropriate to blatantly plagiarize styles from another culture without at least the acknowledgement of what inspired it.
I could never embroider a shirt in traditional Mexican style or re-invent the kimono as my fashion movement. No, that is THEIR fashion movement and has been in fashion for years, and it is beautiful. So just say so and rock it however you want to. Wear your forehead crystals, your braids, your air-brushed T’s, and flourish in celebrating our differences. Just be sure to do so in celebration.
This doesn’t mean everyone is respectful when they cultural appropriate, and it doesn’t make all instances right; it just means this conversation needs to evolve. Racism is so much more than just clothes or hair. Just because you don’t cultural appropriate doesn’t make you not racist. And just because you do, doesn’t mean you don’t understand colonialism and prejudice. Instead of addressing and attaching meaning to material things, conversations need to be had and racism should be addressed at its core.
However, if you still don’t think that is appropriate and you would still like to attach negative meaning to fashion trends, go ahead and stay mad. Instead of getting other people to change, your efforts would be more productive in being an example of respect for others. At the end of the day, ain’t nobody gonna stop doing them.
If you’ve made it to the end of this article and feel offended, please read this.