Cultural Appropriation has different meanings in parallel worlds. To people of color, the term is a ‘dig.’ To whites, it’s their bread and butter, and one of the many tools used to maintain supremacy.
Exploring the word was a journey that took me back to the days of slavery.
Cultural appropriation occurs when a more dominant culture “adopts” or takes credit or profits from the customs, ideas, creations of another culture with less power. The more powerful one usually oppresses the less dominant culture, and so the adoption is without respect or dignity for the less dominant culture. Does that sound like the power and prejudice of racism?
The dig for many POC lies in the power imbalance.
- The lack of recognition or the disparity in profit. The dominant culture profits with little to no trickle down to the less dominant culture.
- The dilution or reduction of a cultural tradition. Often the dominant culture uses a sacred custom for entertainment or fashion.
- In the past, the adopted idea or feature was demeaned with disrespectful labels by the dominant culture who now stand in line to acquire.
- It’s an age-old process where white people used the labor of black people to create wealth for themselves while subverting and oppressing black culture.
The old cowboy and Indian movies were early examples of cultural appropriation. These movies reduced Native American traditions to entertainment and ridicule while profiting from telling a biased narrative about them being savages.
The Kardashians make a fortune being “black.” Kim made a fortune sporting a big butt. A big butt acquired naturally by black women who were humiliated and mocked for their butt size. Now white women stand n line to get butt implants or transplant fat to their butts. Last year, Kim after sporting cornrows called them “Bo Derek Braids.” She gave credit for cornrows to Bo Derek. It is true, not many if any black women profited like Bo Derek for merely wearing the style. However, cornrows came from the styles and customs of African women, not Bo Derek. To Kim and Bo, cornrows are merely a fashion statement.
A somewhat fictional example based on a true story drives the dig home. For black people, cultural appropriation is reading and listening to stories about the history of Hip-Hop that credit Blondie or other white artists with little mention of the Sugar Hill Gang or other black musicians. I was around when Rap first started. Civilized white people could not stand the music. It was politically correct to make a belittling comment about Hip-Hop. Whites scornfully referred to it as ghetto or jungle music. Many in the music industry did not consider it music. Now it surpassed Rock n Roll in popularity; it was created by Blondie. (smh)
Cultural appropriation is a one-way process, usually, involving the white culture appropriating non-white ideas, inventions or customs, especially those of black people and Native Americans. When cultural appropriation flows in the opposite direction, it is called forced cultural assimilation. Examples include black girls forced to straighten their hair to attend school or get a job. Black children told to comb their hair and sent home when they wore natural hairstyles.
The word cultural appropriation, like racism, has several parts.
- Property as in ideas, creations, inventions, customs or tradition
Many people get fixated with one part, and that becomes their perception of cultural appropriation. I believe that was the case when a fellow writer Eric LeRoy wrote a Medium article on the topic. CAN I WEAR YOUR CULTURE ON MY FACE PLEASE? He implied Black people are petty in their objections to cultural appropriation. For him and most white people who benefit or profit from cultural appropriation, the term has a distinctly different meaning from that understood by most POC and as defined.
These whites confuse cultural appropriation with cultural integration as the above article did. Cultural integration does not involve a power imbalance. It is a natural byproduct of cultures coexisting beside each other. An example of cultural integration or exchange is food where the involved cultures remain intact. I loved Chinese food and used to cook Chinese fried rice. My Chinese fried rice was different than authentic Chinese fried rice; I added to the basic recipe. Do you see the difference? The process organically underpinned by pleasure and recognition of the exchanged culture. Cultural integration is the outcome of a melting pot of cultures.
It was the idea of cultural appropriation that I found offensive when I returned to school. I was proud of a workshop I created after a few short months at Harvard. When I noticed the credit for my hard work redistributed, it triggered profound resentment. At the time, I didn’t understand why I felt such a strong emotion. In asserting my value, I became the angry black woman.
Cultural appropriation is yet another example of racism. It’s another instance where white culture oppresses and subvert the achievements and customs of POC. It’s virtuous to give credit where it is due. There is no need to appropriate any one’s culture when it’s healthier to exchange or engage in cultural sharing.