Corn rows, box braids, locs, etc. We’ve seen “ethnic” hairstyles taken for a spin by white people of all kinds. Celebrities, high school students, fashion icons etc. Some find it flattering, others think of it as a swagger jock, but not everyone has the same position on culture appropriation. This whole discussion about culture appropriation has probably/possibly gotten out of hand. Everyone has an opinion, but most people don’t have a fully developed concept of what the phrase means.

Culture Appropriation is when a person of a one cultural group uses cultural features of a different (namely oppressed) cultural group and capitalizes on it without giving proper recognition or credit to where the item, feature, music, style etc. came from. It can be akin to stealing someone’s idea for a business and profiting from it. While that would be a crime, culture appropriation would not. The problem is that culture is not protected as “property” by the law, but culture is very important to some groups and there is a lot of history to explain why.

A few years ago, the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for the appropriation of their prints and calling them “Navajo” in their online clothing descriptions. The facts are that the prints were not of Navajo origin or design. They were, perhaps “Navajo inspired”, but they were not produced on Navajo land, or designed by a person of Navajo descent. Urban Outfitters reaped all the benefits of naming the prints Navajo, meanwhile the Navajo people did not receive any profit off the designs given their name.

I don’t know what the actual verdict was on this case, but despite what the law says or what it protects it is not inclusive enough and is always being interpreted and changed. The law should not be the only basis for morality. There are certain things that are simply wrong, whether they are covered by the law or not.

If you read my last post The Real America: Navajo-land, you know that I had the pleasure of student teaching on the Navajo Rez during my last leg of college. Because of this experience, I feel bonded to the Navajo culture in a way and definitely understand the struggle that belongs to marginalized groups.

While the Urban Outfitters v. Navajo Nation case is a bit unique, because it entails actual profits, in most situations profitability becomes a bit more muddy to discern. No, you don’t need to earn actual money in order to profit from something. You can earn accolades, respect, fame, and as a result be afforded future opportunities. All of that can come from copying off someone else.

As I said before, I recognize this topic is a bit hard to conceptualize, and I understand that many people consider it “culture exchange”. The thing you should be aware of, and the thing that offends many, is that historically our society has not valued people of color and the cultures they bring with them. If our society respects white people who “borrow” cultural features from black people, why aren’t black people being praised in the same way? If a white woman can wear corn rows and be considered edgy or cool, then why can’t black women wear their hair the same way and be regarded as beautiful?

I get it, culture is beautiful! It is exciting and new and the uniqueness makes you want to take parts of it with you. BUT, when experiencing a new culture, remember that the history of that culture will help you to fully appreciate why it is significant to the people and how you can respectfully show appreciation for the culture.

For example: those cornrows that non-black people wear to appear edgy or unique, have been used as a protective style for kinky, curly and coily haired black women for centuries. Though you may have been unaware, black women have been told that cornrows were unprofessional, unattractive, unkempt and a host of other negatives. While black women were simply trying to care for their easily tangled locks in a manageable way, they were considered undesirable and unfit for many positions in mainstream America.

The problem with cornrow “pick-pocketing”,  is that many non-black women choose to wear the cornrow hairstyle, deciding it is an aspect of black culture that they like or appreciate, but simultaneously decide to ignore issues within the black community that have plagued black people for ages. If you truly appreciate black people and the culture, you would care about their community and their history and how you can be an advocate for change. If that is not who you are or what you aim to do, then ask yourself honestly if you are being fair by benefiting from an aspect of their culture, that they have not yet been able to benefit from themselves.

Secondly, if your next argument is “why is it okay for black people to “borrow” from white American culture?” In case you haven’t noticed, white Americans are not marginalized. They are the majority group and they hold the “power” and influence to establish norms, and have political and financial control. Usually, when you see a black person trying to “fit in” with white people, it is because they see it as a necessity in order to succeed. They are playing by “white people rules” in an attempt to win white people over and get ahead of where the average person is on the totem pole.

If any of this is hard to swallow, I understand. It can be challenging to admit advantages  you have over certain groups. Guess what? You are the key to change that! My suggestion is to get out and spend some time with people of color on their turf. Establish a real interest in the people and not just aspects of the people. Most people will appreciate you putting yourself out there to learn and when you learn to love the people, you will learn how important your advocacy is. Be genuine, and get to know individuals and treat them as such. My last piece of advice, if you have a question and you are not sure if it is offensive to ask, preface the question with “Is it okay if I ask?”. Not everyone will feel the same about everything and no one person can be the spokesperson for the whole group. You will catch much more respect for displaying respect for each individual person.

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With much love and respect to all folks

 

Yours Truthfully,

Ryan Elliston