Cultural Appropriation? An American Invention.

Now that the title has grabbed your attention, let me swiftly dispel any presumptions of what direction you may think this blog post shall take.

The notion of ‘cultural appropriation’ has been very much been a recent phenomena circulated in the media, social networks, and has arguably become somewhat a ‘fashionable’ topic, with proponents taking a strong stand on either side. Admittedly at first, I dismissed the concept as merely another ineffectual and peripheral debate, conjured up by a group of ‘sensitive’ ethnic Americans- who probably in reality do not really have such a great insight into the culture that they are supposedly defending.  Yes, this was my initial perspective; coloured greatly by the fact that I myself have never been (or have yet to be) rejected from employment or education because of the natural state of my hair; at most I have been ‘discriminated’ against for my piercings, which in itself does pertain specifically to any one culture (as far as I am aware). Moreover, my own personal pleasure in seeing others embracing aspects of my own culture- be it hairstyles or fashion items- has significantly prevented me viewing these acts as offensive, and as some people may advocate, racist.

For me personally, the problem only really occurs when white people are praised for sporting cultural styles, where natives would be discouraged and even affronted for doing so- the reality of which I am only beginning to appreciate. Sadly, it is a fact that, not only the higher one progresses up an organisational hierarchy, that the less women there appears to be, but also the less woman of colourthat hold these positions of power.  Recently in the news, photo-shopped pictures of Michelle Obama’s ‘natural fro’ was distributed after her decision to wear her ‘natural hair’ (she has stopped relaxing[1] it) has caused a lot of controversy with many African- American woman heartily urging her to continue to wear her hair in its natural state and to defy the Eurocentric beauty standards- a job which perhaps might become a heavy burden for the first lady, who is placed under an unspoken ‘obligation’ to maintain the prosaic American standard of acceptable hairstyles in a ‘professional’ working environment. 

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Watching an interview by ‘the root’ with Lady Obama’s personal hair stylist, there were a couple of qualms I have to squabble over. Firstly, might I just start by mentioning that Michelle’s hair stylist (Johnny Wright) seemed to talk about her hair as if it was his own, stating that ‘I was ready for a change’ when discussing her transformed hairstyles over the last couple years; a mode which to me seemed an awfully intimate way to talk about hair that is not growing out of your own scalp… Although he says that he does not choose Michelle’s hairstyles in order to be ‘trendy’, but rather to ‘create a silhouette that’s recognisable’, it makes me sad that this silhouette did not incorporate her natural hair, because as he goes on to say, curly hair is ‘fun’- the implication for me being here that it is not ‘serious’ or ‘appropriate’ for her work environment. Of course this is just my own interpretation of the interview and I am taking from it my own implications, so I would urge you to watch it for yourselves to construct your own judgement.

I understand that most of the time white people who wear black hair styles or fashion do not do so with the intention to offend or belittle their culture, because let’s be honest here- you’d have to be going to a pretty big effort to pay £60+ on getting a hairstyle on your head just for that purpose (not mentioning how the weight and tightness of braids can even cause discomfort to your scalp for the first couple of days). I think the important thing to remember though is that if you are going to wear African hairstyles you should go to lengths to educate yourself about the cultural and historical meaning behind them, especially because very often, conflict is a result of ignorance, and enlightening yourself shows that you appreciate it more than for solely its aesthetic appeal or as a means to be ‘edgy’. Perhaps we should even go further and once well informed, we ought to also act as an advocate for acceptance of Afro-centric cultural traditions in society- especially in a professional atmosphere-so that African women (in particular here) may be allowed the same rights, respect and liberty to wear their cultural styles, just as a white person has the freedom to. This brings to mind a post by The Guardian newspaper I’ve saw actually just this morning on facebook whereby the presenter, Marlon James, distinguishes between being ‘non-racist’ and ‘anti-racist’. He postulates how it is no longer enough anymore to say that we do not do perform offensive acts, but we have to also actively stop offensive acts from happening, “we need to accept that what hurts one of us, hurts all of us”.

Ironically, Danielle C. Belton, the presenter interviewing Johnny Wright, was herself not wearing her ‘natural’ hair so to speak, but instead her hair had either been relaxed/straightened and then curled, or was being worn in a protective style (wig/weave). In an ideal world, I would love all women to embrace their own hair and appreciate that this is what they have been gifted with, however with the media and online social networks (and here comes the downfall of facebook/ tumblr), pictures of ‘perfection’ which get much praise and views undeniably has a subconscious affect on us, imprinting deeply on many of us. I cannot say that I am above this destructive indoctrination- at the age of 5 I had already decided that I wanted to relax my hair because the girls at school all had long, silky hair and mine was coarse, brittle and knotty. This said, it is not always the case that all ethnic women decide to relax or straighten their hair texture. Indeed it could purely be that they feel unable to manage their hair texture, however I can’t help but feel that this in itself is rooted somewhat in the images the media portray of luscious silk straight hair and the fact that previously there was no real sort of education on how to manage natural hair:

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No no no- why would you want brittle curly hair like that ^^ when you can have luscious, damaged, dry and relaxed hair like this:

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Youtube is a fanastic network for learning about how to handle natural hair, and to be honest it is where I have learnt how to handle my own natural hair, where even my own mother could not (2- 1 to internet’s usefulness) and I hope that these educative videos will help encourage women to wear their hair natural.  On that note, I once received a comment on a youtube video where by I was demonstrating single braids on ‘natural hair’ (let me not even get into the colossal argument that was started on calling them ‘box braids’ instead of ‘single braids’) whereby I had ‘offended’ this particular individual by calling the hair texture of my little sister’s ‘natural’ hair (yes, her virgin hair which has never been chemically processed, is natural to me) when in fact, according to this young lady it could not be classified as natural hair as her curl pattern was looser (3B) and was not the typical kinky African hair texture. This just goes to show that even within the ethnic community the debate of cultural appropriation still goes on.

***Disclaimer*** this blog post was heavily laden with reference to African Women cultural appropriation simply because I have the most knowledge and experience with such an issue and therefore felt it would only be truthful and honest to write about what I know; my education in this field is an on-going process. This is in no way to say that men do not experience the same injustice or that other cultures are exempted from the same or similar prejudices.

[1]A ‘relaxer’ is where you chemically change your hair to be straight (or curly). It is a very damaging process and does not genetically change your hair, therefore new growth needs to be ‘retouched’ regularly.

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