When is it cultural appropriation and not appreciation?

September 21, 2020

With the surge of vitality in the Black Lives Matter movement, it makes sense that people have been actively seeking and exposing where racism lies in our society. Because of recent events people have opened their eyes and become aware of the pain and struggle that people of color face. A wave of anger has ignited a fire in many, leading people to take action and help those in not only their community but all around the world. In keeping with the traction of the movement, the practice of cultural appropriation must be addressed.

 From hoop earrings to the slang word, “periodt,” which signifies the end of a statement with emphasis, aspects of the lives of people from communities of color have been turned into widespread trends among non-members of the minority group. The fashion industry consists of a melting pot of elements from different cultures and influences but when does cultural appreciation turn into cultural appropriation?  

Cornrows have been an important expression of black culture throughout the test of time. Ayana Byrd, the author of The Hair Story; Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, speaks on the issue and the integral history behind this hairstyle. She explains how statues with braids were found from communities in West Africa, dating back to 500 B.C. Braids were relative to “your social security number,” she says, as they could identify your status, wealth, or the community in which you reside. Cornrows and braids have historically been deeply ingrained in the African culture. When slaves were brought over to America, their hair was shaved off, as if part of their identity was stripped away. Yet hair was still a big part of their lives and was a big symbol of liberation during the time of counterculture in the ’60s.  Unfortunately hair worn in a natural style is still considered a form of protest since white America has continuously ridiculed and disapproved of black hair. 

Despite the shame that has been brought on the black community for their hair, braids became popular amongst Caucasians after 1979, when a white actress by the name of Bo Derek was seen wearing cornrows in the movie 10. White people began to wear braids again after the rise of hip hop in the early 2000s, which is a style of music that stems from the black community. These braids were rebranded as ‘Boxer Braids.’

“Credit should be given where credit is due.””

— Junior Matthew Carney

In actress and activist Amandla Stenberg’s video, “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows: A crash discourse on black culture,” she describes cultural appropriation as, “when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high fashion or funny, or when the privileged take it for themselves.” 

 Cultural appropriation can be found in fashion runways, clothing brands and the names of sports teams. Even Halloween costumes are no stranger to the concept either,  though some ways of cultural appropriation might not be as blatant. Recently, “blackfishing” has been deemed the modern-day blackface. People will tan or darken their skin and in some cases even get plastic surgery. A recent celebrity that was caught Blackfishing, Rita Ora, caused quite a stir on Twitter when a tweet exposed her as a white Albanian. Many had believed her to be mixed-raced because she has flaunted an afro and dreadlocks on a multitude of occasions. It can be disheartening to find out someone who has achieved such great success in life, someone that people worship and imitate, turns out to be a fraud. 

 Although much of the world has come to a halt during the current pandemic, fashion trends that can be seen as cultural appropriation have continued. Following racist attacks on the Asian community as the alleged cause of the pandemic, one such trend has been the sudden popularity of fox eyes. Fox eye makeup mimics the look of slanted eyes, which has been one of the main sources of ridicule of the Asian community for generations. Pictures of Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner’s makeup have flooded the scene, as they were used as a marketing ploy for tutorials and followers. 

“I remember in 6th grade some kids in my class were making fun of me and calling me Chinese and pulling their eyes back among other racist stuff even when I was trying to tell them I was Korean. I do feel uncomfortable with it. Asians have struggled with our eyes for so long, then suddenly when white people turn their eyes up and slant them it’s a new trend? People defend it as we should ‘be thankful that people appreciate your eyes’ but it really doesn’t feel good when something specific to an ethnicity is taken and whitewashed, and that is when it is deemed [beautiful],” said sophomore Claire Hong.

Many Asians have since then spoken out about their discomfort with the trend. Although a beauty influencer’s intent may not have been born from hate but solely out of trying to get views, their cultural appropriation is not harmless. People tend to follow what is popular to feel accepted themselves, despite the act making those that possess the feature feel like an outcast.

There are many different reasons why people will appropriate or pretend to be another culture. As seen with the fox eyes and blackfishing many Instagram influencers have used cultural appropriation as a tactic of gaining followers or a way of “marketing.” Part of it may stem from a place of insecurity that causes them to find comfort in the manners of another race. Another reason could include racial fetishism. Oftentimes people have related being ‘cool’ with black or Hispanic culture. Even if this cultural appropriation is motivated by envy or idolatry rather than hatred or bigotry it can still be detrimental.  At the end of the day people can change their hair and clothes and can pretend to be ‘black or Asian or any other color for that matter’ but until they have experienced the accompanying disadvantages and mistreatment they are making light of the identity of the actual members of these communities.

 The definition of cultural appropriation differs from person to person. If you are unsure of the opinions of those around you, it is better to be safe than sorry and skip the attire. It will allow those of color to find solace in not being made a commodity and bring you peace of mind. This caution in fashion choice is nothing new to people of color.  They have to consciously make an effort to make sure that whatever they are wearing will not make them a target for ridicule or even violence. We must all do our part and respect every culture even in fashion.

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