Cultural Appropriation 101

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As many of you may, or may not, remember, I wrote a piece on cultural appropriation for Daisy-Chain's blog, 'Teenage Mysticism'. Recently, Daisy created a new blog (which, I should add, is just as marvellous and you should check out here) which means my post is no longer on the world wide web [cue automated boos here]. As the topic of cultural appropriation is quite important, and many of you may not have read it, I have decided to repost it on my blog [cue automated applause here]. I shall leave you with this post, while I go and mentally prepare myself for another term of school.



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So, it’s time for your 30-minute routine Twitter feed scroll. You begin aimlessly scrolling down your timeline, occasionally coming across some super relatable tweet that totally deserves a retweet when, BAM, you see a tweet that’s stopped you in your tracks. Your cool socially aware "feminist" friend retweets a tweet that states “Kylie Jenner wearing cornrows is cultural appropriation #StopKylieJenner2k15”. You don’t understand. How can Kylie Jenner’s choice of hairstyle be an act of cultural appropriation? Surely at a time where so many girls are being praised for rising above societal conditioning, she can do what she wants?


These, among others, are very real and extremely relevant questions that deserve to be addressed when it comes to understanding the extremely broad topic of cultural appropriation and its ties with racism. After roaming around the internet for a little (long) while, and coming across a plethora of confused (mostly) white people unable to understand why so many POC (People of Colour) get offended when people are obviously just “appreciating” POC cultures, I’m going to try and lay down some facts on three major questions you might have about cultural appropriation.


#1 “What is cultural appropriation?”


In basic terms, cultural appropriation is when someone borrows aspects from another culture that is not their own.


In her video, “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows”, 16-year-old actress, and all round cool person, Amandla Stenberg, does a great job of describing cultural appropriation as occurring “when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves” and “when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they are partaking in.”  


An example of this would be when we see people wearing bindis as accessories to music festivals. The bindi has a lot of significance to the South Asian women who wear it, and is a part of Hindu culture and religion. A lot of South Asians who wear their bindis in Western countries have faced a barrage of mockery and racism because of their cultural identity choice, but we now see a dominant culture adopting the bindi as a trend and it all of a sudden being deemed “fashionable” and its wearers “exotic” and “beautiful”.


As 18-year-old actress, Zendaya Coleman, puts it in an interview with Nylon Magazine, “You can go about it as cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation, you have to be very careful. Some things are really sacred and important to other cultures, so you have to be aware, politically, about those things before you just adopt them. In order to appreciate something, you have to know about it and understand. You don’t just wear something just to wear it  you have to understand the history behind it.”



#2 “If black girls get weaves and have blonde hair, aren’t they trying to be white? Isn’t that cultural appropriation?”


In short: no.


Black women are constantly bombarded with the Eurocentric ideals of beauty, that they consequently have to adapt to survive in a society where white beauty is the standard. They straighten their hair because they’re told that their natural kinky, curly hair is “too unkempt” and “too unprofessional” for the working environment.


This is what is called cultural assimilation, not cultural appropriation.


Cultural assimilation is where a minority group loses their own traditional cultural elements while gaining cultural elements from the dominant group over time for political, economic, and/or personal reasons.


Cultural assimilation means black people living life anticipating prejudices, so consequently changing the aspects of themselves that would seem stereotypically “black” in order to gain white approval.


As a Nigerian growing up in Western society, there’s been aspects of my culture that I have had to water down to insure I effectively thrive in a society that would feel more comfortable if I wasn’t so culturally diverse, so different from them. We now have black parents choosing their children’s names based on how it will be received by their predominantly white counterparts. They are making sure that it is nothing “too ghetto” or “too unpronounceable”, in fear that a future employer may see that “ghetto” or “unpronounceable” name on a CV and reject their child purely on that basis.


Black people are continuously adopting aspects that some feel is synonymous with “white culture” (which are not) to create a space that their white counterparts feel comfortable in, and although our individual treatment may improve because of this sort of assimilation, this doesn’t mean the issue of racism disappears.


#3 “Why is Kylie Jenner wearing cornrows a big deal?”


Ever since Kylie Jenner’s recent choice of hairstyle was called out by Amandla Stenberg, the topic of black hair, and when the very blurred line of cultural exchange and cultural appropriation is being crossed, has been surfacing all over social media. With so many mixed views and opinions, it can be hard to understand why Kylie’s cornrows is a problem to so many POC.


The problem with Kylie Jenner’s cornrows, for a lot of POC, is far from just a general annoyance at her choice of hairstyle. I personally realize that no one owns any particular hairstyle, but the problem comes down to context.


Firstly, cornrows, braids, and  locs are hairstyles black women have always done to effectively maintain their hair. It’s a part of black identity. Black hairstyles, much like the bindi, has been scrutinized and mocked for so many years by our predominantly white counterparts. They’ve been deemed “unprofessional”, “ghetto”, “ratchet”, etc. Here we have a hairstyle that has “lead to racist stereotypes and generalizations where it originated”, but is now “cool” and “edgy” now the privileged has taken it for themselves. We have the new “trend” of this hairstyle being owed to a white person, when black women have been donning this hairstyle for years.


Secondly, we have celebrities who quite clearly and publicly love aspects of black culture, such as our hair and our features, but also seemingly fail to recognize when the culture they love so much is being stigmatized and unfairly treated. They enjoy the fun superficial side of blackness, but when it comes down acknowledging the currently very public hardships of black people, they’re mute. Instead of respectfully recognizing and acknowledging the people behind the culture they love so much, they continue to contribute to the reduction of our, and so many other POC’s, cultures to a mere trend or costume.


Hopefully you now understand why it’s more than just hair, or just an accessory, or a mere choice of clothing. Hopefully you now realize the significance of appropriation of cultures, why it contributes to an erasure of cultural identity, and why it’s wrong.

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If you still do not fully understand what cultural appropriation is or do not understand its negative impacts, or you are just willfully refusing to be open to this conversation, I'd like to direct you to some useful links/videos that may help you understand this topic more.

1) Kat Blaque - What's Wrong With Cultural Appropriation 


2) Amandla Stenberg - Don't Cash Crop My Cornrows


3) This Twitter thread by @_Nxdin


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1 comments

  1. Great article, Victory! Question: I have a best friend who is Asian, and sometimes wears cornrows. I have told her that that is considered Cultural Appropriation. She said "oh, I didn't know, sorry." She considers herself a Feminist, and race is an important issue to her as she is the only Asian female at our school. But she has continued to wear cornrows on one side of her head since her mom won't let her shave that side off and she says it makes the side look shaved.. What should I tell her to get the point across? Thanks love!

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