Culture Thief

Cultural appropriation is an issue that is receiving some attention lately. From outrage at White women wearing native American headdress to fury at White women posing in a gym with their hair woven into four crooked braids. Denouncing cultural appropriation is the new movement, and Amandla Sternberg is its patron saint.

Wikipedia defines Cultural Appropriation as

the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s cultural elements by members of the dominant culture.

Merriam Webster defines appropriation as

Taking or using something, especially in a way that is illegal, unfair e.tc

Here is my understanding of cultural appropriation.  A culture is appropriated (or rather, misappropriated) when certain cultural elements and symbols are used outside of their intended purpose by people who are not members of the culture. The Native American headdress is a good example here. In Native American culture, the headdress is worn only by those who have earned the right to wear it. Now it is used as a fashion statement by people who are ignorant about its true significance. The red cap of the Igbo culture is another example. A red cap signifies that its wearer is a titled and respected man. In both the headdress and the red cap, even members of the culture who have not fulfilled the requirements necessary are not allowed to adorn these coverings.

Sometimes cultural appropriation is simply theft. One ethnic group either knowingly or unknowingly, passes a piece of another culture as its own as though it was the originator of the idea.

I think the most common definition of Cultural appropriation is when elements of an oppressed and subjugated culture are adopted and celebrated by members of other groups, who may or may not have a hand in the oppression. Succinctly put, it is when other groups love a certain culture, but hate the members of the culture and treat them with prejudice. This is quite evident in America where the love for black culture should not be mistaken to mean a corresponding love for black people. I remember reading about a popular Hollywood actor who was a rabid racist when he was younger. In one incident, he is said to have thrown rocks at a group of black children going to school, essentially telling them that niggers were not welcome there. This little racist went on to become a rapper, dressing and speaking like an African American.

Of recent, most of the cases of cultural appropriation have had to do with hair.  The short of the story is that Black women do not like it when White women try out black hairstyles. I am not sure if the emergence of Rachel Dolezal made Black women more alert to this, or if White women have started wearing black hairstyles more often, but everywhere you turn, a White woman is being called out for appropriating black culture. The latest act to elicit a slew of think pieces is Allure magazine’s “How to get an afro.” The condemnation was swift: White women should not have afros or cornrows or dreadlocks, because black women are abused and degraded for wearing these hairstyles while white women are celebrated for it. Don’t bring up the prevalence of (coloured) hair weaves  among black women because there is a ready retort for that: Black women can wear “White hairstyles” because we (Black women) have been forced to assimilate into White culture.

Try as I might, I cannot summon enough outrage for this. Nope. I have tried to understand the arguments put forward and they have all fallen short to me. These think pieces are presented in a manner that suggests that all Black women really just want to wear afros and cornrows and the reason we can’t is because White people will make fun of us and not hire us. But one critical aspect is left out. When a person starts to go on about how Black women are ridiculed for their hairstyles, I silently ask: “Yes, but by who?” and the answer is always the same: other Black people.

Who were the people at the forefront of the Blue Ivy has ugly hair campaign? Who started a petition to get Beyonce to comb her child’s hair, even though there really is nothing wrong with Blue’s hair? Even BET took a swipe at her hair. Frankly speaking, there was nothing wrong with Blue’s hair. The problem is that people expected the progeny of Beyonce to be born with long blonde hair that cascaded softly down her shoulders and bounced as she walked. Then Blue had the audacity to come to earth with Black hair and Black people were not having it. If a child could be subjected to that, imagine how it is for an adult.

From experience, a black woman will receive criticism on her hair from a hundred black people before one White person, and that is even if. I am not saying that White people love Black hair, but a White person is less likely to openly say something bad about your hair, especially in this age of political correctness.

Natural hair is making a comeback and thanks to Social Media, one can get a feel of Black people’s atitudes towards natural hair. Twitter is a microcosm of the real world and is therefore a decent representation for what goes on outside the computers. For example, the term “Shea butter twitter” has become a pejorative and is still routinely used derogatorily. From my side of the fence, I think the public reception is softening (thanks in part to the pictures of the women with big fluffy hair), but social media used to be rife with insults and criticisms from Black people about Black hair.

Nigeria is the most populous black nation on earth with about 170 million Black people. There is a sprinkling of expats but everyone is Black. Yet I am called weird for deciding not to relax my hair. Some women have awful stories about being ill treated because of their hair. In a country of Black people, Black hair is still shamed. It would be a different story if it was White people making those comments, at least then I could chuck it up to them being racist and then unite with similarly haired girls to destroy the racists with the weight of our fancy words. But one can’t exactly accuse a Black person of being racist to another Black person.

Note that I do not think that the women criticising Allure et al are necessarily the same ones who ridicule Black women for their hair.

When assimilation is referred to in arguments against white people wearing black hairstyles, I chuckle. Imagine telling a group of Black women whose hairs are, as they say, laid to the hair gawds!, that the reason they spend thousands of dollars on beautiful, silky, tangle free, minimal shedding hair shorn off an Indian virgin on the first day of her period, is because they are trying to fit in to White culture. You will be as they say, read for filth, and then Shea butter twitter would have to bear the brunt of the backlash.

Natural haired women constantly went on about how Black women have been brainwashed to hate their hair and embrace white hair instead. There might even have been links drawn between low self esteem and weave wearing. Needless to say, non natural haired Black women were pissed. Cries of “it’s just hair” rang out everywhere. Things do seem to have simmered a bit on that front, thank goodness. However now, it is not just hair and White people are not allowed to do anything Black with their hair. It is only a matter of time before White girls start trying out weaves (not extensions, there is a difference), and then Black women would tag this cultural appropriation and accuse the women of trying to be Black,  because let’s face it, weaves are now part of our culture.

I am not at all disputing the assimilation theory. I have even have spouted it myself when I first went natural. Even though Nigeria is Black, it was colonised by the British for a while, and America has its history of slavery, so it is plausible that Black people manipulate our hair to try to blend in. However, we need to sort out this hair issue within our community before berating others. These hairstyles the White people are supposedly appropriating are hairstyles that are sometimes looked down upon in several Black societies worldwide. Whatever the reason for this: White influence or just a preference for straight hair, we need to get it together and celebrate our hair our damn selves. I just cannot take the outrage seriously when I know that the greatest opponents of Black hair are Black people. Hell, maybe if enough White people wear afros, Black people would stop making fun of Black people who wear afros.

Another argument is that White people are celebrated for the hairstyles that black people are derided for. Is this true or is this just an argument that has been repeated over and over until no one bothers to question its authenticity? Do White people in cornrows get more respect? Are White people in dreadlocks really celebrated? Or are they viewed as tree hugging hipsters who possibly recycle their urine?

Some of the women condemning this hairy situation are more than angry, they are hurt. This makes me think. Is this a case of the dramatics, or are people really hurt by a White woman in an afro? Maybe this is something I cannot understand because I am not African-American and have not lived through that experience.

The allure piece is not completely without fault. It wouldn’t have hurt to have at least one Black model in an article about 70s hairstyles that are coming back in fashion. The afro was big among Black people in the late 60s/70s and is making a comeback. The White model has been made to look almost black in Dolezalesque fashion. On a page of White models, one sees her near the headline “loose afros” and thinks “oh good a Black model” only to learn that Psych! she is really a White woman.

Another issue one might have with the article is this nice quip about afros:

An Afro is not an introvert’s hairstyle, it is ballsy and powerful…this is confident hair.

An introverted Black woman may be confused by a White magazine telling her that the hair that grows out of her scalp is not for her because she is not ballsy. I imagine it is the same way a ginger person feels when they see people who dye their hair red being praised, while they are teased for their naturally fiery curls. It is clear the magazine was using the afro as just any hairstyle without thinking that for some it is not a hairstyle, it is their hair. To be honest, the afro is now a hairstyle. People choose to wear their hair that way. There are natural haired women who do not ever wear their hair in an afro. When I wear my ‘fro, I am usually stopped by at least one nosy Nigerian who wants to know why I have chosen this hairstyle. Black people still see natural hair (afros and all) as a trend: “Oh everyone has natural hair now.” so should we really be pissed that other people see it as trends as well?

Allure should just have chosen a different name for the hairstyle rather than tagging it a “loose afro”.  But then I suspect that if the hairstyle had been given another name, some people would still tag it cultural appropration. I can see the comments now: “That is not a loose curl, that is an afro! You appropriate our culture and try to pass it off as your own. At least give us credit and refer to it as an afro.” 

Teen Vogue spread on Senegalese braids received blacklash for not using Black models.  Now this is something to be annoyed by. Everyone can get braids if they so wish, but when a article is done on African culture, it might make sense to get a Black/African model for the job. Jeez.

Further research reveals that the model used in the teen vogue spread is half black, which I’m sure opens up a whole another debate.

Cultural appropriation is real and It can even exhibit itself through hair. However, let’s not go up in arms every single time a non Black person even mulls over the idea of getting braids done. There are a number of things I am offended by: People in blackface, White models used where Black models are needed and a host of other things, but Kylie Jenner in cornrows is not one of them. Saying Bo Derek invented cornrows is.

In conclusion, there is nothing wrong with (White) people drawing inspiration from other cultures as long as they do not claim they originated it and as long as the item is not a sacred cultural symbol reserved for certain groups.

Let’s go in peace.

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