Welcome to Social Studies, a new feature where we look at cultural conversations in the context of history to truly understand what these issues mean and how we can move forward. If you have ideas about topics we should cover, comment below or email us at hello [at] feather-mag [dot] com.
We’ve been hearing the term “cultural appropriation” in the media a lot lately. From Iggy Azalea’s rhymes to Kylie Jenner’s cornrows, a lot of celebrities are being called out for taking from other cultures.
With model Winnie Harlow’s now viral Instagram post on cultural appropriation, it seems people still don’t really understand what the term means. Addressing people who are donning blackface to recreate her skin condition (Winnie has vitiligo), she argues that cultures who have things appropriated from them should be flattered, but that only deepens the problem.
For anyone who’s still confused about why it’s not OK to take parts of a different culture and use them as a fashion statement, we want to clear some things up.
What is cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is when a dominant group uses cultural elements of another group, without recognizing the original source.
This is when Kylie Jenner posts up a picture of herself wearing cornrows with the caption, “I woke up like diss,” that’s cultural appropriation. When she wears dreadlocks, that’s also cultural appropriation. (Those hairstyles started as a necessity to keep Black hair “neat” before the creation of more products tailored to style African American tresses.) She has no problem wearing a hairstyle popularized by Black people, but has contributed nothing to the culture or tried to shed light on any problems facing Black Americans, which actress Amandla Stenberg pointed out on Instagram.
The problem is that when a non-Black woman rocks something women of color have been doing for years, it suddenly legitimizes it. Soon, you start pointing at women who exhibit European standards of beauty as originators of something, effectively erasing its true origins. That goes for any cultural trends taken from oppressed groups.
Cultural traditions usually have roots in ceremony or create a unifying look for a cultural group. Under the latter is Harajuku girls, often used as props in music videos by pop stars. (No, Gwen Stefani did not start that look.) That look has been used to make millions of dollars for designers who stole it from its creators.
What is not cultural appropriation?
Whenever the topic of cultural appropriation comes up, there are people who will ask: “Aren’t minorities appropriating White culture by speaking English? Isn’t Nicki Minaj appropriating White culture by wearing blonde wigs?”
The answer: no.
You cannot separate those things from historical context. Don’t forget that the reason people of color speak English is because they were colonized, forced to assimilate to another culture as their own was ripped from them and demonized by being called “primitive.”
As the writer of My Culture is Not a Trend writes, “things are not black and white, and things such as cultural appropriation cannot happen horizontally when power is not distributed horizontally.”
When it comes to outer appearance, a more Eurocentric look has been lauded for centuries (another part of colonization). From the 1879 up until about the 1930s, American Indian children were sent to boarding schools and often suffered abuse in those institutions as they were taught to subscribe to colonial standards of “civilization.”
The founder of this forced assimilation system said in a speech, “All the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
The reverse cultural appropriation argument does not work because many cultural groups did not have a choice in adopting languages, clothing, etc.
(For the longer answer about hair, read what we wrote on the hair journey Black women go through.)
How can we cross the line from cultural appropriation to cultural exchange?
Representation is the answer to moving forward.
“Eurocentric beauty standards dominate fashion, media and beauty industries on a global level,” Kladia Blagrove writes for The Huffington Post. “This means, most Americans are shown only a limited perspective of our world.”
Representation would cease the opportunity for erasure. If we start showing more of these trends in the context of the culture they originated from, then more cultures can begin to adapt it as a cultural exchange.
To do that, we need the most-consumed media outlets to spend more time on covering diverse topics and getting in on trends from the ground floor. (That behavior would trickle down to other outlets, as a result.) They need to acknowledge the origins and be empathetic toward them, so every cultural group receives the same amount of respect.
When we can understand the significance of trends, we can adopt parts of other cultures respectfully, creating a cultural exchange.
(GIFS via giphy.com)