The topic of cultural appropriation has been trending on social media for the past few years, as many incidents have been broadcasted throughout the Internet. There is a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation that is often blurred and confused. By definition, cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture without acknowledging its origin. In other words, cultural appropriation is the plagiarism of culture. In most cases, appropriation occurs when members of the dominant culture adopt elements of minority cultures without understanding the origins.
In 2013, Miley Cyrus released her “We Can’t Stop” video, which featured her and a group of black women shaking their butts or “twerking.” The video galvanized uproar from members of the black community who felt that Miley Cyrus in her all white get up and gold grills, was stealing from black culture while simultaneously exploiting black bodies. Many felt that Cyrus used the black women as props or accessories, which is undeniably a form of dehumanization. Considering the historic exploitation of black women dating back to slavery, Miley’s use of black women as props seriously offended many members of the black community. Nonetheless, many of Miley’s white fans struggled to see eye-to-eye with the outraged black community. How was this a case of cultural appropriation? While one might argue that Miley intended to show appreciation for black culture and acknowledge the origins of twerking by featuring black women, her temporary donning of “ratchet” behavior despite her white privilege is an insult to black and hip hop culture. Rather than uplifting the culture, Miley dons it in order to depict herself as a “bad girl” or “rebel” which simultaneously gives it a negative connotation. The uproar following the release of Miley’s video marked the beginning of a long conversation surrounding the topic of cultural appropriation.
When beauty vlogger GIlan Sharafani posted a tutorial entitled “Big Heatless Curls,” again the black community was outraged. In the video, Sharafani uses the bantu knot method to create heatless curls. For those of you who do not know, bantu knots are a hairstyle that originated from South Africa and is often worn by black women. Rather than reffering to the style by its original name Sharafani fails to acknowledge its origins, thereby suggesting that she somehow invented the style herself. While copying is a form of flattery, copying without paying homage to origins is offensive and oppressive, especially when it is members of a dominant culture who are using elements of minority culture. If Sharafani had acknowledged that she was inspired by black or African culture this would have been a case of cultural appreciation rather than appropriation.
In 2015, Zipporah Gene wrote an article entitled “Black America, please stop appropriating African clothing and tribal marks.” Throughout the article, Gene answers the tough question “can black people culturally appropriate one another? Gene argues that Black Americans wearing African attire is no different than any of the aforementioned cases of cultural appropriation. While I understand Gene’s viewpoint, I fundamentally disagree with her stance, as I feel that she fails to address the historical context. Black Americans were forcibly removed from Africa and stripped of their cultural and humanity. Taking this historical fact into consideration, one cannot claim that Black Americans are stealing African culture because they historically share the same origins. In most cases, Black Americans wear African attire to pay homage to the motherland and honor their roots, which is the quintessence of cultural appreciation. Even in the case of a white person wearing African clothing, one could be showing cultural appreciation. For example, if a white person were to attend a cultural African event and decided to honor the culture by wearing a dashiki, this would be a display of cultural appreciation. On the contrary, if a designer decided to use African prints without acknowledging the origins of his inspiration then he would be appropriating African culture. Urban Outfitters exemplified a similar case when they sold a “Vintage ’90 Linen Dress” for $209.00. The dress depicted in the image is traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean dress. Rather than acknowledging the inspiration behind the design, the company ripped off these cultures, thereby suggesting that it was an original design. Here we see the fine line between appreciation and appropriation. In one case, the origins of a practice or attire are addressed and in the other they are overlooked.
Particularly in a country where minorities are already marginalized, cultural appropriation is extremely offensive, as it displays a lack of respect for minorities and their cultures. Faced with the daily hardships of being a minority in a predominantly white society, culture is the one thing that uplifts and celebrates minority lives. Of course the sharing of culture is an inevitable and beautiful aspect of living in a melting pot such as the United States, however when cultural practices, ideas, and attire are blatantly stolen without recognition of their origins, appreciation quickly turns into appropriation. As we approach the end of racial strife in our nation, it is important to be aware of this crucial distinction. Comment below to continue this dialogue. What other cases of cultural appropriation have you seen? How do you think we can spread awareness to this issue?
By Krystal Egbuchulum
Edited by Victoria Krute
Layout Design by Renita Singleton