One time when I was in elementary school, my mom cornrowed my hair just before school started. I was livid.
I hated the way the braids looked on my head, and I swore they made me look like a boy.
My mom didn’t care. She said, “I’m not taking those braids out. You’re going to school with them in your head. If you try to take them out, I will shave your head.”
Begrudgingly, I showed up to school with a full head of neatly braided cornrows.
As soon as I got to my class, a girl took one look at my head and turned her nose up. She said, “My mom says those braids are for people who have really bad hair. Since I have good hair, I’ll never have to get them.”
I had heard the concept of good hair and bad hair many times as a little girl, and I knew what the supposed difference was between the two.
That night, I begged my mom to take out the braids and straighten my hair like the white girl’s so I could have good hair too.
I was upset that the girl thought my hair was “bad”, and I thought that maybe if I came to school with straight hair the next day she’d like my hair more.
To my dismay, my mom refused to take the braids out just because some girl said she didn’t like them. So the little girl continued to make fun of my braids the next day and most days until the end of second grade.
You can imagine how annoyed I was to see the same girl on Instagram nearly a decade later wearing the cornrows I once wore in second grade, the cornrows she once hailed as gross.
Cultural appropriation, a concept that has recently reentered mainstream debates, is the act of taking or using from a culture that is not your own without showing that you understand or respect that culture.
Some people believe that it goes deeper than that, defining cultural appropriation as a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who they have systematically oppressed.
This is not to be confused with cultural exchange or cultural assimilation.
Hundreds of different ethnicities make up the American population, so it is understandable that cultural exchange takes place, causing cultural groups to influence each other at times.
Cultural assimilation is when marginalized people adopt elements of the dominant culture in order to survive conditions that make life more of a struggle if they don’t (i.e. me wanting to straighten my hair so the girl from my class would stop making fun of it).
Cultural appropriation in many ways can be damaging and hurtful to the people of the culture that is being taken from.
For example, it allows a person to “borrow” aspects of a culture, but still remain prejudiced against the people who created said culture.
In addition, things such as music and art that originated with minority groups come to be associated with members of the dominant group, resulting in the dominant group being deemed as innovative. Ultimately, it allows privileged people to profit from oppressed people’s labor.
For example, in the 1950’s, white musicians borrowed the musical stylings of their black counterparts. Due to the fact that African Americans were not widely accepted in U.S society during these times, record labels chose to have white artists replicate the sound of black musicians.
Many black pioneers of American music have remained unnamed and forgotten through history.
In fact, in 1956, Elvis Presley released what would become a signature song, “Hound Dog”. The song topped pop, country, and R&B charts for eleven weeks straight. It went on to sell over 10 million records worldwide, which is still impressive by 21st century standards.
However, Presley’s hit song that made his name wasn’t originally by him. It was recorded years earlier by a black woman from Alabama named Big Mama Thornton. It was a decent success for her time, but no where near the success of Elvis’ version.
She died without ever receiving the recognition she deserved. Today, the song is still remembered as Elvis’ iconic rock n’ roll song, and Big Mama Thornton’s name is all but forgotten.
Black people such as Big Mama Thornton were often not allowed in the same clubs their music was being played in.
In addition, customs that originated with the minority group become too “ethnic” for said minorities, while on the dominant group they are seen to be edgy.
For example, many jobs bar certain natural hairstyles such as cornrows, dreadlocks, and afros because in some corporate settings, they are seen as unprofessional on the minority groups that created them. However, on the dominant group, that same hairstyle is cute, new, and urban.
Trends that originated within black and brown cultures were looked down upon until white people started to do the same thing.
All of the sudden the hoop earings were in. The cornrows, box braids, and dreadlocks were in. Next, the styles were featured on magazine covers, runways, and white celebrities without any mention of the girls who pioneered the style.
At the same time, cultural appropriation continues the stereotype that minority groups lack creativity and intelligence because the accreditation goes to the dominant group.
However, the most damaging effect of cultural appropriation is that it essentially shows that you don’t have to like a person or respect their identity or their life to feel entitled to take from them.
Today in America, I cannot help but notice a perfect example of this with the appropriation of black culture and the blatant disregard of black lives.
Black culture is a vital piece of American culture but it is exploited by non-black Americans without the thought of black people more times than not.
There was a time when black culture was regarded in a negative light and Americans stayed away from it. There was a time it was looked down upon by the masses simply because it was foreign.
Now, however, times have changed and black culture seems to be “in”. It’s wonderful to see black people, style, music, and business finally in the light that it deserves, but where is the support of black lives?
Though many non-black Americans know each and every word to “Bad and Boujee”, wear the box braids and cornrows, speak in Ebonics because “it sounds cool”, and have black friends, they seem to be silent when things start happening to black people.
I guess it’s all fun and games until you have to start supporting the people who come up with all the cool “trends”, right?
It seems it is cool to be black, but when it comes time to actually stand up for black people, the convenience and coolness of black culture is gone.
It’s alright until the rights of black people are infringed upon and all of the sudden everyone is silent, the lights in the black club go down, and the only thing I hear is crickets.
People who love the braids and the vernacular and the style will swear up and down that they truly understand and support black people until it is actually time to do just that.
Some people who claim to embrace black culture actually only feel an entitlement to it- they feel they can take what they want without any thought of black people.
When they are called out on their faults, they blame black people for being close-minded and claim “reverse racism”, saying that this country is a melting pot and therefore it is alright- but it isn’t.
If you mean to appreciate black culture, that has to include you learning about the history of what you’re appreciating and about the struggles and achievements of the people you’re borrowing from. The culture that surrounds the music, style, and vernacular should be at least respected and understood.
It deserves to be credited when it is used to inspire other works of art, business ventures, and other things black culture and black people are often never credited for.
In order to truly understand the culture, you have to understand black people, their triumphs, their struggles, and their shortcomings. You cannot overlook black lives when it comes to the culture.
Black people are just as valid as black culture.