Why the Conversation About Cultural Appropriation Needs to Go Further


In this op-ed, Antonia Opiah explores the shortcomings of the current cultural appropriation conversation.

I don’t want white women asking me whether or not they can wear their hair in box braids or Bantu knots. I may make my living off of writing about black hairstyles, and celebrating the rich history of black hair, but I’m not that kind of authority. I’m not a gatekeeper of black hair — black hair doesn’t have any gatekeepers. But these days one would think it does, and that’s one of the things that makes me cringe a little about the cultural appropriation conversation that’s been going on (outside of academic circles) for a few years now. For those who may not know, the Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation (I’ll refer to it here as CA for brevity) as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” However in a widely shared article on the site Everyday Feminism, staff writer Maisha Z. Johnson points out an important aspect of CA, defining it further as “the power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” “Power dynamic” is the key phrase here and a part often missed in debates about CA.

At the heart of conversations about CA — in its very definition — is an imbalance of power. I’d go so far as to say that cultural appropriation only exists because the world isn’t fair. Opportunity isn’t really as equal as we think it is and people are unfairly characterized, which has consequences. Cultural appropriation would be the cultural exchange everybody wants and loves IF it were occurring on an even playing field, but it’s not. And that’s the crucial aspect of CA that gets overlooked, and the reason the CA dialogue leaves something to be desired. Academics have written about the power dynamic underlying appropriation, and many journalists and bloggers have, too. But because communication is no longer what it used to be — because nowadays a national conversation really means that everyone is participating and syndicating their views and opinions about a topic — only the most compelling sound bites bubble up and get amplified. And what that means for the CA dialogue is that it ends up getting whittled down to “black people are saying white people can’t wear cornrows” or “white people can’t wear hoop earrings” or white people just have to — as Katy Perry so eloquently put it — “stick to baseball and hot dogs.” But that’s not the end goal of calling out appropriation. The goal is to make things more fair both on a cultural and economic level.

Making things fair on a cultural level means correcting incorrect narratives of groups of people or preventing them from being mischaracterized in the first place. In an email to me on this topic, poet, critic, and all-around Renaissance man Kwame Dawes wrote, “When [musician] Burning Spear sings, ‘Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar!’ he is making a critical point about the lies that led to people of African descent believing that they had no history, that they contributed nothing to the world.” Meanwhile, Africa’s rich precolonial history continues to be downplayed (see Walter Rodney’s book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa). Dawes further shared (emphasis added):

”I always tell people that without the work of serious activist historians, what we now accept as truth, that jazz was created by black people, would not be understood as such. For decades, a narrative existed that jazz was invented in New York by a bunch of white musicians. The white musicians are not an invention, but they had gone to New Orleans earlier and heard jazz and came back and claimed they had invented it.  That is exploitative cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation affects the soul of people, a sense of their inherent value, and it also affects their pockets, their capacity to rise above their circumstances through the fair rewarding of their creativity.“

The emotional impact of CA is deeply underscored by the larger socioeconomic power imbalance that exists. Let’s take Marc Jacobs’s use of locs in his spring 2017 runway show, for example. White models wearing locs isn’t wrong in and of itself. But when it happens against the backdrop of the modeling industry lacking diversity, or makeup artists and hairstylists in the industry not being equipped to do a black model’s hair or apply her makeup, and when the appropriation occurs with no credit, respect, or empathy, that’s where things begin to feel like you’re being kicked while you’re down. Writer Lionel Shriver caused controversy by making light of cultural appropriation during a speech last September at the Brisbane Writers Festival. She had posed a great question: What are fiction writers ”allowed“ to write, given they will never truly know another person’s experience? But instead of really exploring the answer to that question, she ended up writing off those concerned about cultural appropriation as overly sensitive. (It also didn’t help that she was wearing a sombrero when she gave the speech). In a piece in The Guardian, writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who was in the audience during Shriver’s speech, pointed out the underlying inequality present in the publishing industry that makes telling other people’s stories complicated:

”It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity?“

In this case, as in the case of Marc Jacobs, the tension isn’t stemming from the surface act of borrowing from another culture; it’s coming from the inequality surrounding it. It’s coming from the fact that a Nigerian writer might not be given a chance or have the resources to amplify her own voice because she’s at a disadvantage as a result of the effects of colonialism and the West’s continued exploitation of Nigerian resources.

So, as I stated earlier, I don’t want white women asking me if they can wear box braids. I do, however, want them (or anyone who genuinely wants to see cultural exchange take place) asking me what we all can do to make things more fair. Because there is a caste system that exists in the U.S. and in the world and we need to acknowledge it and dismantle it. We can do that by looking at the industries we work in and asking ourselves if they really reflect the face of the population, and if not, why not? Are there structural reasons at play or are there assumptions keeping certain demographics from being considered? For example, publishing companies are more likely to hire from certain universities. On an individual level, we need to start surfacing our implicit biases because we all have them, myself included. We need to acknowledge the snap judgments we make about people; ask ourselves, ”why do I think this?“; and challenge any assumptions that exist in the answer to that question.

Doing all of that is not an easy feat and the results of it probably won’t be seen in our lifetime because the reality is when I’m asked ”Can white women wear box braids?“ the answer is ”Yes, of course. People can do whatever they want.“ But until things are made equal, they’ll be doing it in a context where the people being “appreciated” will always express the pain of living in a world that’s not fair.

Photos: Getty Images; courtesy of Instagram/@kyliejenner.

Related: 7 Girls Show What Beauty Looks Like When It’s Not Appropriated

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