Appropriation is not Appreciation

Clyde Freeman, Georgetown Day '17

Clyde Freeman gives his take on the controversial and misunderstood subject of cultural appropriation. (Published: 2017)

Illustration by the Maroon Tiger

Cultural appropriation: the “adoption” of aspects of one culture by a member of another culture. Cultural appropriation is the abuse of a socially constructed power dynamic that condemns one group for dressing, acting, or living one way while praising another for the same thing. Dreadlocks, sagging pants, headdresses, bindis, the qipao, black vernacular, the hijab, dashikis, dream-catchers, and other forms of cultural art are all exploited for the pleasure of white people. Black women in dreadlocks are “trashy;” white women in dreadlocks are “trendy” and “edgy.” Headdresses on Native Americans, “primitive;” headdresses on white models, a “great prop.” Black vernacular, “uneducated” when the speakers are my black cousins, but “dope” when used by white guys in my school. The current state of racial tension transforms the sharing of culture into cultural appropriation. While a person may be unaware of their appropriation, much of society will still view what a white person does as commendable while it simultaneously deems what a person of color does condemnable.

Cultural appropriation is a product of the power hierarchy created by and for white people. With white people at the top and other racial groups beneath them, a damaging power dynamic between the different races is created. Minorities cannot be accused of cultural appropriation of white culture in the same way because trying to fit in with the norm is not appropriation. Black women wearing weaves, getting their hair permed, or using a variety of products is not appropriating white culture, but rather a desperate attempt at assimilation with the Eurocentric conceptions of beauty pervading from western culture. Straight hair is always thought of as beautiful no matter how light or dark the person’s complexion is, but natural black hair, kinky and curly, is constantly labeled unprofessional, unkempt, ugly, and undesirable. The European concept of beauty puts enormous pressure on Asian and black or African women to look white by using products to bleach their skin (for more on this see “A Call to Black Beauty and Melanin Magic”). White culture has been the dominant and oppressive force throughout history, therefore whiteness has positive associations, and the fairer the complexion the better.

Illustration by Will Masters, Sidwell Friends '19

What is being appropriated often carries a certain cultural and historical weight that is blatantly ignored by those appropriating; instead, the piece of the culture is treated like a fad. Feathers, headdresses, and dream catchers are perfect for a boho concert look. Kylie Jenner’s constant appropriation of the bindi, dreadlocks, cornrows, is “goals” but that same style is a source of ridicule when it’s on Hindu or black girls. Beyoncé’s appropriation of Desi culture is inexcusable despite the fact that she is Beyoncé, a black woman, or that it happened in a popular music video. Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid wearing hijabs is considered beautiful, but Muslim women in hijabs are seen as “terrorists.” Selena Gomez wearing a bindi is bold, but Hindu women in bindis is traditional. Ethnic people wearing traditionally ethnic styles are culturally conservative and not white enough. If you are maintaining your culture and not actively assimilating, you are outside of the norm. This damaging double standard is what perpetuates the legacy of racial oppression of minorities and people of darker skin. This will never be cultural sharing unless the system that praises and accepts white people also learns to unconditionally love and appreciate every aspect of people of color’s different cultures as well.