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I Want to Talk About Cultural Appropriation


This is something that plays on my mind in various ways from time to time. On the one hand, self expression should be free for everyone no matter their background, but there are things that do upset me and I’ll explain why.

What is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is the idea that people who are part of a dominant culture adopt certain elements from a minority culture, and often get to earn from it. The imbalance of power is what makes people feel upset about this. The idea that the people of the minority culture are not accepted, but their music, food, dress sense, dancing, singing (or anything else) can be taken on by the dominant culture as their own which oftentimes feels disrespectful.

Who are the two ladies in the picture? One is Bo Derek, an American actress who was well known in the late 70s, and the other, a young lady with braids, I dunno, I just found her picture! What’s with the ghetto and the creative? I’m trying to demonstrate a little something about cultural appropriation. Before I get to explaining that I want to first of all talk about their hair. They both have braids, it’s a beautiful style and one that I have had in my hair many a time. In fact, as a young girl growing up my hair was often braided up. Many black girls grew up that way. Let me go back in time here. Braiding hair in cornrows was more than just a hairstyle, it told a story. Different countries in Africa had different ways of braiding the hair, and it would symbolise what tribe you were a part of, what status in the tribe you had, whether you were married and so on. Braids were like an ID card and from braiding styles you could not only tell about what tribe, but even which country a person was likely from. When slavery happened and the Africans were shoved onto the boats, they had their heads’ shaved. Their identities were gone, they were humiliated. Not only were they brutally taken from their homes, but to add insult to injury, their identities and self worth vanished. That was the lighter side of what they endured, from being in cramped conditions, shackled, having to defecate and urinate on top of each other, it’s a hard thing to really think about. Generation after generation had negative feelings passed down about our hair-type, the most unique hair type there is, and what’s worse is being told that the way your hair naturally grows out of your scalp is unprofessional, messy, unkempt, probably smelly, dirty – just to say a few things I have heard from various people. You can (maybe) start to understand why black hair in particular is more than just hair. Braiding hair keeps afro hair from becoming tangled and matted so it’s what’s known as a protective style. Everyone wants to look good so these days hair braiding is more creative, but still serves the purpose of being a protective style. Unfortunately when you’re a minority and have your own way of doing things it can be (but not always) seen negatively by others who don’t understand. The hair styles were seen as unprofessional, unkempt, and ghetto by many whites. In 1979 Bo Derek made her first major film appearance in the film 10, and it was a very memorable film appearance to many, and still is to this day! She was an attractive white blonde woman, but the most striking thing about her was that she had braids in her hair. Something that white women didn’t do. It was styled how black women would braid their hair in the time of the 70s and 80s, something that they would often get ridiculed for (flash backs to my memories of the school playground..), but she looked amazing, creative, stunning, beautiful, and in fact started a trend for whites. They were dubbed Bo Braids and women in the US were charged upward of $200 to have them done! Braids in white hair could only last around 3 days due to having a different structure (to afro hair) before it looked messy and would have to be taken down. Braids in black hair can last weeks and would cost around $20 at braiding salons, but usually would be done at home due to it being a handed down cultural thing. So, why would Bo Derek be innovative, but the beautiful melanin filled sister next to her in the picture be dubbed ghetto? I have serious issues with this, and not so much over the fact that it’s a black or white thing, but more that it cannot be beautiful on both of them. It was thought that she had her hair done in order to ‘stand out creatively’, ‘have an edge’, ‘look exotic and sexy’, ‘further her career’ but those general thoughts were not the norm towards African-Americans who had their hair like that all the time. I do not feel any anger towards her for her decision to merely braid her hair because it’s just hair sis, it’s not that serious. So why does it become more serious when you’re black?

Ricky Davis and Justin Timberlake

Both have very similar hairstyles. Justin Timberlake would be seen as using cultural appropriation to further his career in music. He made music that was heavily influenced by black music styles, danced in ways that were heavily influenced by black dancers and dressed in ways that were usually associated with black people, and all done not as good as the initiators (just my opinion, don’t come at me!) but he made a career of it and did extremely well. Not to say that he isn’t a talented man, because he is, but to many black people it feels that a white person can take on almost everything you see culturally from minorities, and play that to the world stage and be dubbed a genius even if you aren’t as good as the originators. But check it, I’m not trying to create divide by bringing this up, I’m trying to open up people’s eyes to a few things to show why certain people feel certain ways. Me personally? I’m all about unity, mixing cultures together and creating beautiful hybrids of things, but with the acknowledgment of other people’s feelings. I’m not saying everyone needs to be treated with kid gloves, no, but to some people it’s just hair, it’s just music, but to others it’s their identity that has been used to make them feel ashamed of themselves, and once the majority group do it themselves it’s now acceptable or fashionable or innovative (but still ghetto if you do it in your own culture) is where I have anger issues!! Now this is not a blanket statement. There are many white people who love black music and culture and are respectful with it. They aknowledge why in general blacks feel the way they do about things. Just like there are many black people who don’t share the views I’m writing about, they can feel howerver they do. These are my general opinions and I certainly do not believe one size fits all. I so feel the need to make that clear because some people need it spelled out for them, even if you think I’ve been clear enough, I need to assume that maybe I haven’t been!

The interesting thing is it just doesn’t work the other way around, simply because a minority race cannot appropriate, they would be trying to fit in, you see how it works? I think of myself as a very open minded person and I don’t think of myself as constantly playing the ‘race card’ – who invented that saying anyway?? But, how could I not have thoughts about issues like these? It’s tough, because on the one hand certain people who are just more privileged just don’t generally realise that they are privileged, and therefore really do think that everyone is treated the same and has the same playing field and that all issues are faced by everyone the same, but that just isn’t true. When I talk about privilige I don’t mean that you were handed out money everywhere you went and red carpets were rolled out for you each time you walked into a shop! Privilige maybe isn’t the right word, but I cannot think of a more befitting one. The idea that you can walk along the street without somebody clutching their handbag as you pass them, or without them cross the road so they can avoid walking passed you. Being watched as you go shopping for fear that you’ll shoplift, or if there’s a group of you together the idea that trouble is only moments away, being denied entry to nightclubs, stop and search for no real reason… the list could go on grrrrr – and yes I am fully aware that those things happen to other people of other races, but not at the disproportionate rate that it happens to black folks – yah dig! Let me get back to what I was talking about. There is nothing wrong with having an appreciation of differing cultures, that should be rolled out, everyone should have a wider understanding and tolerance of all cultures. So why don’t they? This is something I’m still trying to figure out. How can there be people in this world who love black music, black influenced dancing, black influenced hair styles, clothes and even the words and phrases they use, but not like the actual people?  How can there be people in the world like that?? Now look, I’m not saying Justin Timberlake is that kind of person, but I am showing the appropriation. He is able to tap into a market and make money doing this, whereas black people can’t do that, they can’t appropriate another culture and make money from it, not whilst we’re seen as ethnic minorities…

The music industry is notorius for this and really I can’t blame them for it. They see opprtunity to make money and they go for it. Now, black culture isn’t the only culture that gets the appropriation, but as I’m black it’s easier to talk about it with the depth of feeling I believe it deserves. There will be people who will say ‘what is black culture?’, ‘what is black talk?… doesn’t belong to black people, anyone can do it, what’s the problem?’ Statements like that baffle me because if that’s the arguments, what is anything? I have never heard a black person say that – I’m sure some have, I’m not naive enough to think that they haven’t, but I just personally haven’t come across it. It’s like the term being colour blind. I hate that. By saying that it’s like you deny that I exist as a person of colour, and you deny that any problems I may incur from others because of my ethnicity in fact isn’t because you’re colour blind? We’re all the same, we bleed the same etc.. Well, we’re not all the same. I’m a black woman and I have skin care needs that a white woman doesn’t, I have hair care needs that a white woman doesn’t. Those things a white woman will never relate to because she doesn’t go through the afro hair struggle, but she is no less or no more than me because of it. You see we are different and why should I deny that to make people feel easier? It’s beautiful, to have a rainbow coloured world with all sorts of people. We all offer something totally different to society and we should be able to do that to the best of our ability with equal opportunity. Not all black people are good singers and dancers. Some are great mathematicians and scientists. Not all white people are great doctors and theologists, some are fantastic dancers and singers. I don’t live in a fantasy that all black people are amazing entertainers, musicians, artists and athletes, but we contribute to society very well with those skills and I am very proud of that fact. In an ideal world, black people would be seen in as positive a light as whites. In an ideal world, we would all be seen in a positive light, because all our different ethnicities would be seen by all as something positive and not negative by the relativiely few small minded people. If everyone was seen as and treated equally, then I believe cultural appropriation would not exist, what do you think?