Appropriation Vs. Appreciation: Where Do We Draw the Line?
Last June, Kim Kardashian was under fire for wearing her hair in braids, many people claiming that she was appropriating Black culture. She posted a series of Instagram photos to which one user commented, “It’s not cute to appropriate my culture. Your privilege is really showing.”
After receiving negative comments on the hairdo, Kardashian opened up about the braids during an interview with Bustle . “I obviously know they’re called Fulani braids and I know the origin of where they came from and I’m totally respectful of that. I’m not tone deaf to where I don’t get it. I do get it,” she noted during the interview. She also included that her daughter is half Black to try to prove her point. The public is still weary of her motives despite her response, especially because this is not the first time she has appropriated Black culture and hairstyles.
Everything from her surgically enhanced shapely backside to her large lip fillers, she has been profiting off of African American features for decades. Although her daughter may be Black, that should have no effect on Kim appropriating black culture. Her appropriation of Black hairstyles is especially concerning because she doesn’t acknowledge the history behind the Fulani braids that she wears so often. Fulani braids were originally worn by the Fulani people in the Sahel and West Africa. Other African tribes also have their distinct cornrow hairstyles, and they all involve cultural traditions that are handed down through generations.
It’s also impossible to understand these braids without acknowledging the history of slavery. Before long work weeks, female slaves would tightly braid their hair so that it would stay out of their faces for the entire week. Sundays were dedicated to re-braiding their hair into cornrows so their unkempt pieces would stay in place. Black people in America can wear their hair in whichever fashion they please because their ancestors were subjected to this process during slavery. For Kim Kardashian, a white woman, to wear her hair in this fashion, it is incredibly inconsiderate. She is not acknowledging her privilege and is disregarding the pain and suffering that African Americans endured during the era of slavery.
As a mixing pot of a nation, the United States has many different cultures and groups that are unique to one another. While we are free to express ourselves in whichever way we choose, some expression is insensitive to certain minority groups. Another example that isn’t usually discussed is mainstream culture’s appropriation of certain terms that were originally coined by queer culture.
In 1991, Jennie Livingston documented the men and women that participated in New York City’s ballroom culture in Paris is Burning. The film is highly acclaimed and was a beautiful demonstration of the LGBTQ community in the late 20th century and even today. It shows marginalized queer people, predominantly Black and Latinx, in an environment where they are all free to be themselves without judgement or fear. During the film, they use unique slang that they define to the viewer. Whether we know it or not, mainstream culture has taken these terms and made them its own. “throwing shade”, “vogue”, “realness” and “reading” are all terms that were defined in the film and have found their way into mainstream media.
Madonna’s hit song, “Vogue” is a prime example of this appropriation. When the song and music video were released, most people didn’t know what voguing was, so their first time hearing the word was associated with Madonna, a cisgender, white woman. She made the term her own despite the term already having a history and background that was created by the queer community in Paris is Burning. “It makes no difference if you’re Black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl.” The lyrics are especially insensitive because they state that voguing is for everyone, when in fact, it was created specifically by queer, transgendered, Latinx and African American people. Since that song, the concept and art of voguing has been changed forever and will always be associated with straight women because of Madonna.
A disturbing element of queer cultural appropriation is the fact that the people the mainstream has stolen from are predominantly minorities. Although it was coined by the African American and Latinx people in Paris is Burning, when a white person says “throwing shade”, they are looked at in a positive and comedic light, but when a Black person says it, they are considered “ghetto” or unintelligent.
Although appropriation of Black and Latinx culture is hugely prevalent in America, it’s not the only circumstance. A long-running controversy stands between the Washington Redskins football team and activists for Native Americans. The mascot of the team is a Native American and the fans often dress up as the mascot by wearing traditional headdresses and painting their faces. Activists claim that the Redskins and their fans perpetuate Native American stereotypes and increase racial bias, but Redskins fans just think that they are honoring the Native American culture. However, if you look at the history of the United States, you will see that the term “redskin” was used to dehumanize Native Americans, and it was often what the colonizers called Native Americans’ dead bodies.
Appropriation is an issue that is very hard to define, because everyone has different ideas of what is right and wrong. At the end of the day, I think cultural appropriation is about power dynamics. For example, white women cannot wear black women’s hairstyles for fashion because they hold more power in society, and they should not steal what isn’t theirs. However, black women are allowed to wear their hair in “white women styles” because they have been oppressed by white people for centuries and forced to assimilate into their culture. For white people to strip African Americans of their culture and then claim it as their own is extremely unjust. Cultural appropriation is when people in power steal from the culture of the oppressed people; when it’s the other way around, it is not appropriation. When we look at it this way, I think it’s easy to tell when a person is appropriating or appreciating another culture.