Why Cultural Appropriation is Not Cute

By, Ellisya Lindsey

Full Title: Why Cultural Appropriation is Not Cute (Even Though Your “Boxer Braids” Might Be)  

In recent years, cultural appropriation has been a big topic of discussion due to the many instances of celebrities appropriating other cultures, such as the Kardashian-Jenner family. For example, Khloe Kardashian was under fire in 2014 for posting a picture of herself in a Native American headdress. Therefore, the Kardashian-Jenner family are very influential figures at this time, I am sure that you have heard of cultural appropriation. At Winsor, we have talked about the issue of cultural appropriation during open meetings of affinity groups and the assembly that SISTERS hosted. In this assembly, we played a video that showed Amandla Stenberg, the actress best known for playing Rue in The Hunger Games, discussing the issue of cultural appreciation. Despite the many times that this topic has been discussed, people still may not know exactly what cultural appropriation is. According to the Oxford Living Dictionaries, cultural appropriation is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” By this definition, one can see that cultural appropriation is extremely problematic as it does nothing to decrease ignorance about other cultures. If anything, it only seems to increase the amount of people that do not take the time to educate themselves about other cultures.

In the past, people of color were expected to abandon their own cultures and assimilate with the European standard in order to live with limited harassment. It is now more acceptable for people to embrace their own cultures. This positive change in perception of cultures different from one’s own should have only positive effects. However,it has led to the rise of cultural appropriation. As the customs of other cultures have become more prominent, people, usually white, have begun to take those customs and rename them as if they are simply new fads that they came up with. This portrayal of cultural customs have trivialized the history of other cultures and made these traditions into something marketable.

Due to events in recent years regarding the rise of “boxer braids” (which are just cornrows and not a new trend, for the record) and “twisted mini-buns” (which are actually called bantu knots, by the way), it may seem that cultural appropriation is something that affects only black people. In actuality, it can happen to any culture. For example, Selena Gomez’s “Come and Get It” performance on the MTV Movie Awards in 2013 was a blatant act of cultural appropriation. In said performance, Selena Gomez donned a Bindi, a decoration worn on the foreheads of Hindu and Jain women. When asked about this controversy, Gomez said,“The song kind of has that almost Hindu feel, that tribal feel. I kind of wanted to translate that. Plus, I’ve been learning a lot about my seven chakras and bindis and stuff. I’ve learned a lot about the culture, and I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s fun to incorporate that into the performance.” As seen by this quotation, Selena Gomez knew what she was doing and yet saw no problem in doing so. The responses to this performance were mixed as some people online felt that there was no issue with her using a bindi while others were outraged by her blatant cultural appropriation. The varying degrees of responses show that there are still many people that do not fully understand cultural appropriation. Amita S. ‘19 shared her thoughts on the matter: “I feel that she does not fully understand the origins of the bindi, so her using of it treats the bindi as more of a novelty than an actual item of importance.”

I have heard some people try to argue that other cultures are appropriating white culture. For example, people feel that someone who is not white straightening their hair is an act of cultural appropriation. First of all, white people are not the only people in the world that have straight hair. In fact, not all white people have straight hair so this argument makes no sense. Additionally, a key aspect of cultural appropriation is that the customs that are appropriated had been made fun of or judged in the past. In a SISTERS meeting earlier this year, a student mentioned that she was teased for her cornrows at her previous school. Now someone who is white can use it as a trend, and it is viewed as “stylish” and “the next big thing.”

I know that some people may think, “how can we ever reach full cultural integration and acceptance for all if we’re not allowed to adopt customs of other cultures?” But there is a difference between adoption and appropriation. When adopting a culture, one should try to understand the origin of the custom and accept it. Appropriation is when a custom of one culture is taken and treated as if it is originally from another. By ignoring the history of the culture, one is showing a blatant lack of respect towards the tradition. Adoption is when a custom of one culture is discovered by a person that decides to take the time to learn about and come to appreciate the historical relevance of said custom. So, in future, try not to appropriate; usually, if you have a suspicion about whether or not you are appropriating a culture, you probably are. A good way to be sure of whether or not you are appropriating a culture is to consider whether the hot, new trend you are following is really born of another culture that is not receiving the recognition it deserves.