Photos, from left: a Nuba woman wearing traditional cornrow hairstyle; a photo from social media, origin unknown. Both sourced from a Google search.
According to Root, appropriation is part of commodifying aspects of a culture for an economic gain. It is “not only the taking up of something and making it one’s own but also the ability to do so” (Root, 70). People in places of higher power over the culture they are appropriating can do so because of this so-called power, and do so without the permission of those people or the necessary education to spread the proper message of whatever it is they are commodifying.
I attended a forum put on by the Student African American Sisterhood (SAAS) at SDSU, called Bad to the Bone: Deconstructing the “insta baddie” Image, last semester, where I learned a lot about the appropriation of black culture by people on instagram and other forms of social media (flyer for the event posted below). In the two-hour discussion, we heard about how “traditional” standards of beauty come from Western, European, white culture, and how African characteristics have not been considered beautiful throughout the history of Western culture. The main argument of the people who put on this event was that white people in America tend to exercise their privilege and use aspects of African culture to their advantage without knowing the reasons for their existence in that culture.
Throughout history in America, white people have shamed people of African descent for the way that they look, the way their bodies and hair are different, and have deemed those characteristics “undesirable.” This is deeply-rooted in our society, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Over time, it has become common for people who do not identify as black to appropriate aspects of that culture, such as braiding hair in cornrows, which is traditionally done in African culture to protect the hair; and on various forms of social media, we can see women wanting to look more like black women by accentuating lips, showing off full figures and creating this “baddie” look that is now deemed desirable. People of any race often use these platforms to sell products, such as “flat tummy tea,” or various hair and skin products to achieve such looks.
In my personal experience, I have worried about appropriating culture through my participation in hip hop dancing, but hip hop is interesting because as a culture it was intended to be inclusive. As part of my training, I was always educated on the history of different styles and elements of hip hop, so that is a key point in avoiding appropriation. For one performance, I asked one of my teammate’s mothers, who is African American, to cornrow my hair into a mohawk. This was before I knew anything about why cornrows are traditionally used, but she was happy to do it and accepted my wanting to have the hairstyle. In this particular situation, in the context of the hip hop community, about which I know the history of the culture, I feel it is more acceptable to borrow aspects of that culture.
Reading: Root, Deborah. Cannibal Culture, Chapter 3, “Conquest, Appropriation, and Cultural Difference.”