2015 Take on Cultural Appropriation

The year 2015 has been a time of great progress and change. Americans have begun to open both their minds and their hearts and accept others as they are without prejudice. However, like any generation, although we have come so far, we still have so far to go. In this time of acceptance and cultural exchange there is also such thing as cultural appropriation. According to popular magazine Everyday Feminism, cultural appropriation is a “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.” Generally these dominant groups receive praise and adoration while the oppressed receive ridicule and criticism for their own culture. Cultural appropriation is a very complicated problem in today’s society that the systematically privileged choose to ignore or simply do not understand. Either way, it is a topic that needs to be both addressed and understood.

In the year 2015, black men and women are still subject to discrimination based on their appearance. There have been recent controversies regarding predominately ethnic hairstyles in schools. A school in Tulsa, Oklahoma deemed afros, dreadlocks, and Mohawks “faddish” and “unacceptable”. These hairstyles are how African Americans style their hair in order to accommodate for its coarseness. In a world based on European beauty standards, the “appropriate” look for hair is long and straight, specifically for women. Unfortunately, that is not how everyone’s hair grows. Many businesses, including the United States military, do not allow traditionally black hairstyles. This can put an unnecessary strain on both male and female soldiers of color simply because of a hairstyle.These bans seem to be directed towards African-Americans as the majority of them have naturally thick, curly hair, or afros. Beverly Bond of Black Girls Rock says, “The public banning of our hair or anything about us that looks like we look, it feels like it’s such a step backward.”

Prejudice against predominately black hairstyles does not just exist in school settings. After the 2015 Oscars, “Fashion Police” host Giuliana Rancic made a comment on her show about actress and singer Zendaya’s dreadlocks making her look like she “smells like patchouli oil…or weed.” Following the comment, Zendaya confronted Rancic on Instagram saying, “There is already harsh criticism of African-American hair in society without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair. My wearing my hair in locs on an Oscar red carpet was to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of color that our hair is good enough.” Rancic then promptly issued a genuine public apology saying, “This really has been a learning experience for me — I’ve learned a lot today — and this incident has taught me to be a lot more aware of clichés and stereotypes, how much damage they can do. And that I am responsible, as we all are, to not perpetuate them further.” Although this statement does not change the stereotypes projected upon people of color, understanding the social consequences and the stigmas attached is a step in the right direction.

After the incident between Zendaya and Giuliana Rancic, people of color began to wonder why it was acceptable for whites to wear traditionally ethnic hairstyles that society has deemed unsuitable in a professional environment for blacks. Celebrities, such as style icon Kylie Jenner, frequently receive praise when sporting traditionally black style such as cornrows and dreadlocks. Tabloids deem these celebrities as “boho chic” and “edgy” while people of color, like Zendaya, receive criticism. On July 11, 2015, when Jenner posted a picture to Instagram wearing cornrows, activist and “Hunger Games” actress, Amandla Stenberg confronted her. She wrote, “When u appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards ur wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter.”  Jenner brushed off Stenberg’s comments only adding fuel to the fire. Stenberg then took to Twitter where she was able to fully express her grievances with Jenner’s style choice. She states, “while white women are praised for altering their bodies, plumping their lips and tanning their skin, black women are shamed although the same features exist on them naturally.” This was not the first time Stenberg had spoken on cultural appropriation. In April of this year, just three months before the confrontation, Stenberg posted a crash course on cultural appropriation to YouTube for a school project. In Stenberg’s video, “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows,” she states, “appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion or cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that they’re partaking in.” In the conclusion of her video, Stenberg raises the question, “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as black culture?”

With America being the melting pot that it is, black people are not the only ones negatively impacted by cultural appropriation. Hispanics, Asians, Arabs, and Native Americans are all frequently exploited culturally by the masses. Students at Ohio University launched a campaign to shed light on the subject with the slogan “We’re a culture, not a costume.”  During the Halloween season, it is not uncommon to see students wearing culturally insensitive costumes. “During Halloween, we see offensive costumes,” says former President of STARS (Students Teaching About Racism in Society), Sarah Williams. “We don’t like it, we don’t appreciate it. We wanted to do a campaign about it saying, ‘Hey, think about this. It’s offensive.’” All anyone can really do about racism and discrimination is be vocal. It is doubtful that racism will ever go away completely, but it is important to talk about it in order to learn and move on. “The best way to get rid of stereotypes and racism is to have a discussion and raise awareness, which is what we want to do with this campaign,” said Williams.

In the year 2015, it should not be so difficult to treat each other with dignity and respect. Some are so quick to say that they meant no offense, but refuse to take responsibility when offense is taken. Society as a whole needs to do better. Someone else’s culture cannot and should not be a fashion trend. It is not a costume to be worn and then taken off when it no longer benefits you. The proprietor of the culture should not be chastised or harangued while those whom appropriate are praised and adorned.  We have to do better. We will do better.