About two years ago, Kylie Jenner was criticised for wearing cornrows with the caption “I woke up like disss”. Scrolling through the comments (and the articles posted about it) I found myself coming across the term “cultural appropriation.” What was it, I wondered, and began an exploration into this new term that was cropping up everywhere.
I came across many different (and long) definitions of the term cultural appropriation. In the most basic sense of the term, cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that is not their own. Kylie Jenner, in wearing cornrows was adopting African American culture. But it’s just a hairstyle, you might think, is there really so much harm in that. But cultural appropriation also deals with the power dynamics between two cultures, where a member of a dominant culture (in this case Kylie Jenner) borrows an aspect of a culture that has been systematically oppressed by a dominant group (in this case African Americans).
It is the aspect of power play that is important to cultural appropriation. In cultural exchange, to cultures are mutually sharing aspects of their culture with eradicated the systemic power dynamic. When you’re sharing an aspect of your culture, the feeling that it has been taken by force and misused does not exist. Cultural appropriation is also different from assimilation, where a member of a systematically oppressed culture, adopts aspects of a dominant culture in order to survive. For example, people of colonised countries learnt English in order to survive in the community.
So what does this mean? Does this mean that you can’t wear a sombrero and poncho and call yourself Mexican on halloween? You don’t mean any harm, you’re not actually racist. True, you don’t mean any harm. But by appropriating one certain parts of a culture you’re reducing the entire culture to one symbol or one stereotype. It’s like when people equate India to riding elephants, bindis and henna. It is annoying!
Here’s a video by Amandla Stenberg that explains cultural appropriation spectacularly.
While it may seem like we’re being unnecessarily sensitive about an issue, it is important to note that every action has some effect on someone, somewhere. You might not intend to harm anyone, and that’s understood, so the next time you want to wear cornrows or dress up for Halloween, just make sure you understand the culture that you’re adopting.