Only we have the right to control how our culture is presented and
Social media has made it easier than ever to see the ubiquity of cultural appropriation, the act of a person or group of one culture adopting the style, mannerisms, or anything of unique cultural value from another group without context or understanding. Blacks have been the target of unwanted cultural appropriation for centuries, as dominant cultures, mainly Caucasians, “borrow” liberally from them.
Whether it’s Miley Cyrus and Christina Aguilera donning blond cornrows and twerking or entire generations of American boys using blaccents and mimicking African American street style, one thing is clear: If Blacks are doing it, mainstream American will soon be doing it too. African-Americans have an outsized influence on our culture, and, according to Nielsen, they’re 81% more likely to influence the clothes people wear, the music they listen to, and the activities they consider to be cool.
The irony of course is that, while mainstream culture loves Black style, music, dance movies, fashion, and just about everything else about our culture, they don’t show the same enthusiasm for Black people themselves. Whether the racism is as subtle as workplace micro-aggressions or as overt as rampant police brutality, most African Americans experience racism in some form on a daily basis, and many have developed cultural PTSDbecause of it.
Many artists believe that if they are expressing themselves it’s fine to use elements of other cultures in that pursuit. But is this usage fair? In art terms, this would be called Fair Use, in which an artist borrows from another artist to create something wholly original. Unfortunately, as cool or beautiful as someone’s culture may seem, a people’s culture is not an art form, and it shouldn’t be infringed upon or reduced to an image, a sound, or a hairstyle.
When you repurpose, repackage, and reinterpret elements of a culture, even if you think you are you are celebrating it, you may be cherry-picking what you believe that culture represents based on your limited world perspective, leaving out the lived experience of those within it as well as the not-so-beautiful elements of pain, sorrow, and injustice that you do not and could not have seen or experienced.
This happens frequently in Black culture. Many white musicians (e.g. Elton John, Elvis Presley) have been known to borrow heavily from Black blues musicians without paying for that right. There are even instances where artists are offered step-aside money to relinquish their music and even their names to which they’ve earned the rights.
The recent controversy between the country band Lady Antebellum and longtime blues singer known as Lady A is an example of how those in power take freely from other races without considering the impact they are having. In this case, the well-known band Lady Antebellum chose to change its name to Lady A to be more “culturally sensitive” and then proceeded to use a shortened name that was already in daily use by a Black, Seattle-based blues singer named Anita White (Lady A). White said after the band sued HER over the name,
“They want to change the narrative by minimizing my voice, by belittling me and by not telling the entire truth. I don’t think of myself as a victim, but I’ve worked too long and too hard to just walk away and say I’ll share the name with them. They want to appropriate something I used for decades. Just because I don’t have 40 million fans or $40 million, that should not matter.”
White also posted on Instagram “You finally realized your name is racially problematic so you shorten it, but then sue the Black woman that has been using that name for almost 2 decades…. That’s some white privilege.”
The takeaway here is that there’s no such thing as trial and error when it comes to someone’s culture. Only we have the right to control how our culture is presented and exploited. If people truly want to be more culturally sensitive to African Americans, they need to start respecting boundaries and understand that just because they have the power to take something, they may not be as entitled to it as they think.
The Problem with Cultural Appropriation: The Power of Privilege
Some people, like Kim Kardashian, who is famous for borrowing from Black culture, claim that their cultural appropriation comes from deep respect for the culture they are robbing. That’s like somebody copying someone’s else’s work without asking, and then later saying to the originator, “Isn’t this awesome? Won’t you license it to me?”
Kardashian once said to People magazine, “I’ve definitely had my fair share of backlash when I’ve worn braids. Sometimes I think maybe if you don’t communicate where you got the inspiration from—and I’ve done that in the past—then people might not understand it. But yeah, I think as long as it comes from a place of love and you’re getting inspired, then it is okay.”
The problem with this perspective is that Kardashian is a privileged white woman deciding what is OK for the Black community. She believes she has the right to decide whether or not her actions are offensive to Blacks, and that only serves to prove her actions stem from a place of cultural superiority. Though she is married to a Black man, Kim, and people like her who think it is just fine to take what you want from the rich cultures of others, does not have to walk in the shoes of—or wear the skin of—Black Americans. African American people are discriminated against and punished for wearing the very same braids Kardashian wears, and yet, they cannot simply stop wearing them when they are bored of the style trend. That’s because cornrows, braids or what have you are part of our culture FOR A REASON.
Black hair can be stubbornly unmanageable, prone to breakage at each bend in a curl, and braids are sometimes necessary to keep it in check. But braids aren’t the real issue. Black hair of all styles are subject to becoming a message to society about how much, or how little, a Black man or woman should be respected. Wearing a natural Afro is seen as defiant. Straightening is seen as falling in line.
How Black people choose to style their hair is a political statement and it almost always reveals something about who we are and where we want to go in life.
When whites or other cultural groups step into that cultural conversation uninvited, it is a slap in the face. They can never understand the deep and sometimes painful role our hair plays in our culture and in our ongoing subjugation. Afros, dreadlocks, and braids are banned in many workplaces and even schools, so when other cultures don these styles to play dress-up, it underscores the inequities we suffer every day. As Zeba Blay writes in this piece for HuffPost,
Because we know that the eyes of society are always on us and judging us, Black men and women put a lot of thought into how they care for their hair, making African American salons and barbershops next only to church on our list of weekly destinations. These beauty venues offer a haven where we can go to celebrate the very roots of our culture without interference from the outside.
“White women are able to wear Black hairstyles without the stigma of actually being Black.”
Stylists and barbers know how to rinse away our pain and style it into armor that will help us navigate the cultural and political landmines we face every day simply because we are Black. A day at the salon or barbershop can empower us, revive us, and reconnect us to our own people. These venues are our townhalls, a place where we can go to discuss television, film, music, politics, family, and more without the cultural surveillance we experience outside of those sacred doors.
African American beauty venues are Black-only for a reason. Since the turn of the 19th century, they acted as a place to gather and speak freely without the fear of reprisal. They have acted as hubs for the civil rights movements; a source of outreach offering everything from condoms to blood pressure screenings; the original Uber Eats, where we could buy hot meals and the newest music from local vendors; and a common thread for families who may bring their children there and later their children’s children.
Try as they might, other cultures can’t recreate or infiltrate this culture within a culture, which is why Blacks are so protective of it. African American’s know that the way the dominant culture keeps us down is by rigging the game. But you can’t rig the salon and barbershop experience. It is the one area of Black culture that has proven immune to appropriation.