Culture Through the eyes of the Appropriated

Sydney Jackson, Edmund Burke '19

Sydney Jackson discusses the implications of cultural appropriation as both an African American and Native American young woman. She sheds light on the pressure she has felt to conform to western beauty ideals, and her ultimate ability to embrace her cultures’ symbols and reclaim their historical power. (Published: 2018)

Illustration by Jazzmin Cox-Caceres, Georgetown Day '19

I was ten years old when I first needed to check my own consciousness. I wore cornrows at that time because my hair was a tangled mess and it was the only style easy enough for my mother to deal with given her busy schedule. Many of my white friends did not like my hair and made fun of it, saying they would hate to have their hair restricted like mine and that I should just straighten it like theirs. I did straighten it like their hair. Even at such a young age I felt the pressure to be something I was not. I needed to be conscious of the girls around me who made me dislike my own culture. It took me a very long time to accept the fact that I would never be the ideal image of “beauty” in the Eurocentric society I live in. It took many incredible women of color to come into my life and show me what true beauty is, what success and happiness looks like on a brown face rather than all of the white ones I was used to.

Now that I am older and being a black girl feels like being in an exclusive club of melanin goddesses, I embrace my hair and my braids. Now I look back at the times where I felt insecure about my hair with embarrassment, especially when I log into Instagram and see those same girls wearing my exact same cornrows trying to pass them off as “Kim Kardashian braids.” I literally see white people take my culture and claim that a white woman invented it when my ancestors wore the same hairstyle when they worked in fields, when they were house maids, when they were taken from their homes. My culture is constantly being white washed.

Not only have I watched my African American culture be stolen, but I have watched my Native American heritage worn as Halloween costumes. My Cherokee ancestors were not removed from their land, put onto reservations far out in the countryside, and killed in mass genocides by European settlers for their traditional headdresses to be mimicked and worn at Halloween parties. I see people compare themselves to Pocahontas as if she were not a real Native American girl who was kidnapped by the British at thirteen, raped, and held for ransom until she was seventeen. There is a big difference between appreciating and drawing inspiration from a culture and completely copying and disrespecting it.

I believe that this world could be an accepting and conscious place if it wanted to be, but such change requires the ability of those living in it to recognize appropriation: the difference between copying a culture and simply drawing inspiration from it. There are groups of people who criticize other cultures for the way they dress, accessorize, and live their lives. While passing judgements on these cultures they adopt parts of the cultures into their own lives and make them “trendy.” This appropriation of culture can only be understood by those who have experienced seeing a person who is not apart of their culture take a piece of it and run with it.

Being conscious of what you wear is not necessarily a difficult thing to ask of someone, and asking to simply credit the cultural group who inspired what you wear is even simpler. Many groups of people do not mind others using simple aspects of their culture when it is respectful and harmless. However, crediting the person who was inspired by that culture crosses the line. Being conscious of the value of an aspect of a culture is important in today’s society. Many people seem to forget that simple things like a bindi, cornrows, or dreads mean a lot to those cultures and using them as costumes or accessories is not appropriate.