According to Everyday Feminism, “A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.”
When appropriating a culture, the dominant race takes and uses elements from a specific culture. However, they do so in a manner that demeans or diminishes the significance behind the cultural elements as established by the culture they belong to. The dominant race may also satirize or alter the cultural element and/or claim the borrowed culture as their own.
Based on my own first-hand experience, I have seen people don cultural elements that carry deep significance such as tribal tattoos, cornrows, dreadlocks, and Native American headdresses in a nonchalant and dismissive manner. They wear these elements with no regards whatsoever to the important meanings these things have in the cultures they belong to. This is offensive because it waters down those cultural aspects, satirizes them and reduces them simply to an “aesthetic”, when they are so much more than just something visually appealing.
The Black Power movement is a notable example of Whites borrowing cultural elements from oppressed peoples who, in turn, rebelled against the norm of cultural appropriation and proudly reclaimed their cultures despite stigmas. Throughout history, Blacks have been dehumanized, stigmatized, taunted and further oppressed for wearing hairstyles that not only beneficial for their hair-type, but also have deep cultural importance to them their identity as a whole.
Blacks wearing these hairstyles have been banned from schools, have gotten them fired from their jobs, and have been highly discouraged by society. This is a result of white beauty standards imposed on people of color, and a perfect example of the stigma attached to Blackness. Due to the oppression Blacks have faced because of their hair, many were forced to assimilate to the “White beauty standard”. By straightening their hair, wearing weaves, etc., they have tried to appear whiter in order to be more accepted by society, whether consciously or subconsciously. Blacks have come together to fight against Whiteness as a norm. More and more people have started to wear their natural hair, afros, cornrows, locs and braids to embrace the newfound idea that Black is beautiful. The “Black Power” movement empowered millions of Black people in the U.S. and around the world in the 1970’s and 1980’s and more Black people than ever before came to positive terms with their Blackness and Black culture.
Recently, it has become increasingly common for White people, especially White celebrities, to appropriate marginalized cultures–particularly Black hairstyles. Cornrows have been done on White models and plastered all over fashion magazines and runways. On them, it is seen as edgy, modern, and cool. However, it is considered ghetto, nappy and unkempt when worn by a Black person. White celebrities such as KylieJenner, Madonna and theKardashiansisters have been praised and complimented on wearing Black hairstyles without ever being ostracized for doing so. They were not fired from their professions or discriminated against in any way for appropriating Black culture. Due to white privilege, they are able to wear these Black hairstyles without ever having to worry about facing the same repercussions that Blacks face for doing the same. These White women with cornrows and dreadlocks are still seen as beautiful because their Whiteness virtually nullifies the negative connotations associated with these hairstyles.
Some White people want the hairstyles, music, fashion, and certain physical features people of color have, but still dismiss and discriminate the people that are actually part of these cultures. Furthermore, these same people do not advocate for the rights of people of color nor do they join them in the fight for equality. Many choose to wear Black hairstyles without any regard to the struggles minorities have had to–and still face–in order to be able to do the same. They borrow and alter elements of POC cultures and respond by saying that people of color are “overly-sensitive” or “too politically correct” when bringing up these issues. They fail to recognize their privilege and fail to recognize that borrowing cultural elements is really not as simple as a fashion statement. No matter how much they deny the fact that they are culturally appropriating, they still are.
Valerie Reynoso is a freshman Journalism major at Emerson College from New York City.