One may have heard the phrase “cultural appropriation” before. Whether it be mentions in social media or in real life, these recurring words are difficult to ignore.
Most know what this phrase means: the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Sounds harmless, right? Incorrect. The issue with a group of people taking a culture other than their own is that they will readily glorify the beautiful parts of that culture, but ignore the labor and oppression those people had and have to endure. Not only that, but this oppression has usually been engendered by the people now wanting to adopt this culture.
Cultural appropriation of black and brown culture is a major sector of appropriation that we see in everyday media and pop culture. Let’s take Miley Cyrus for example. The sweet, innocent, golden girl went through a “wild and crazy” phase, where she twerked, made “hip hop” songs about drugs and sex, and adopted black styles such as dreadlocks, boxer braids, hoops, etc. Black hairstyles were created by black women to control their textured hair and keep it healthy– it is part of their identity. Cyrus became even more famous than before during this phase, and is now trashing it and hip hop, after she profited off of the culture.
The problem with this is that hip hop and black culture were not hers to begin with, for African Americans created these styles and music to express their struggles and emotions. Along with this, she dumped and criticized it after profiting off of it, featuring black people in her videos, exhibiting black dance moves, hairstyles, and fashion. Now, Cyrus is back to her wholesome country girl persona, a classic example of white privilege and blanketed racism.
Another quintessential example of blanketed racism and white privilege through cultural appropriation is Kylie Jenner, the youngest sister of the infamous Kardashian family. Complaints arose when Jenner began to wear common black hairstyles such as cornrows, got lip and butt injections to make them more large and plump– a natural black and brown feature– and sported gold hoops, du-rags, and more.
Black women have been called “ghetto” and “ratchet” for this part of their identity, but when white women do it, it is deemed as “high fashion.” The culture was created as a coping mechanism for marginalization, not fashion. Also, hoop earrings originate from Somalia, with variations in India and Vietnam, and women of color in America have adopted these parts of their roots to reclaim their culture and celebrate their history and identity while living in the western world.
Black and brown people have been antagonized, denied jobs, degraded, and ridiculed for their own hairstyles, natural hair and features, and culture. But when a white woman does it, she is a “cultural icon.”
Recently, Jenner came out with a clothing line of camouflage attire. Receipts were shown that Jenner purchased an almost identical outfit from a black, female designer, Tizita Balemlay of PluggedNYC. Essentially, Jenner took the idea of a black-owned designer, used the brand as her own, profited off of it, and was praised for it. Not only is Jenner appropriating black culture, but also taking people of color’s labor.
Amy Zimmerman of The Daily Beast says, “they’re taking from predominantly black designers and influencers, and making their aesthetics accessible and desirable to new demographics.”
The Kardashians are being glorified and praised for black culture and features (curves, fashion, etc.)– something that black women and people have done for decades, but have been mocked for. Also, Jenner and older sister, Kendall, recently came out with shirts of themselves wearing large gold hoops with famous rappers Christopher Wallace “The Notorious B.I.G.” and Tupac Shakur “2Pac” in the back.
Fans of the late artists were disgusted– the Jenners use their platforms to appropriate black culture while ignoring #BlackLivesMatter or any form of racism, and now they’re displaying themselves with black artists who made music about racism, violence, oppression, etc?
Mother of Biggie, Voletta Wallace, was not having it. She stated in an Instagram post, “The disrespect of these girls to not even reach out to me or anyone connected to the estate baffles me. I have no idea why they feel they can exploit the deaths of 2pac and my Son Christopher to sell a t-shirt. This is disrespectful, disgusting, and exploitation at its worst!!!”
Appropriation of black culture has existed through microaggressions in American society for a longstanding amount of time. Contemporarily, with white female figures such as Jenner and Cyrus, it is apparent in mainstream media, but it exists in everyday life as well with white women wearing their hair in dreadlocks, bamboo hoops, and appropriating the fashion styles of Black women.
Along with the appropriation of Black culture, appropriation of all other cultures– including my South Asian culture– has reached heightened peaks as well. The fashion staple of the Coachella Music Festival has now become a bindi, and henna has become a fashion statement and commodity as well. These examples extend to the media as well from Gwen Stefani to the music video for “Lean On” by Major Lazer & DJ Snake and MØ. The video features a white woman, MØ, singing in India, wearing the cultural clothing and dancing cultural dances with several Indian woman beside her.
It was almost offensive to see a white woman using my culture as her profit, while my people were dancing beside her as props. Being a South Asian woman, I and so many other South Asian women have been mocked or alienated for our culture, but when a white woman does it, it receives 7 million likes on YouTube.
Destiny Frasqueri, an independent Afro-Latina hip-hop artist, voiced a similar feeling after watching Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse.” This music video features Perry in Egyptian clothing, as to emulate an Egyptian queen, while black woman bow down to her.
Frasqueri describes this as “21st century coonery,” where there is “white supremacy, undertones of whitewashing, and cultural appropriation that goes into these blatant looks, styles, videos, and symbolism… that is meant to glorify white supremacy, make us look like monkeys, and fetishized.” Frasqueri speaks of her own people being appropriated, as well as all people of color who have been taken from with no reparations.
Thousands of other examples of cultural appropriation exist, whether it be Native American headdresses also at the infamously problematic Coachella, on the runway, or many sports team’s logos while actual Native Americans have yet to receive real reparations for the genocide of their people, or white women wearing kimonos, dashikis, and kurtas for magazines while so many women of color don’t get casted for their own looks and cultures. Or maybe when supermodels Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid were wearing hijabs as props, but Muslim women get called “terrorists,” are murdered, and denied jobs and immigration rights for their faith.
It is important to recognize that people of color have been downtrodden on for simply existing, and disparaged for their cultures. When non-people of color want those cultures– because they are undeniably beautiful– for themselves yet ignore the labor and oppression those people had to endure, that becomes a problem.
Although cultural appropriation seems minor, recognizing the struggles and thoughts of marginalized people will help to expose why any form of racism is not okay. Recognizing appropriation first requires recognizing where you stand on the spectrum of privilege; without doing that, you will only perpetuate ignorance and oppression.
Culture appropriation is about more than just aesthetics; it is the issue with stealing and using other cultures with meaning and significance for personal benefit and gain. Although those bamboo hoops, henna, or qipaos may look “cute, hip, or cool”, they are much more than just a fashion statement.