Cultural Appropriation or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Blonde Cornrows

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A critique of the supposed problem of cultural appropriation

The movement of social justice has collided with mainstream culture. It’s a movement aiming to make current institutions that interact with the disadvantaged more just, where as radicals see these institutions as largely dead ends in achieving any meaningful equality. Though its values are derived from a somewhat undisciplined starting point, the social justice movement has presented many valid, imperative issues that the mainstream would otherwise ignore. It often attempts to present its grievances with high emotion and a confrontational attitude, in order to lend a seriousness to their causes. However, as they are limited by the reformist nature of their politics, they see oppression and seek to lighten its grip, not to prevent it. In some cases the change they seek and the ideas they create/inherit only change the cosmetic composition of oppression, the best example being the notion of cultural appropriation and its supposedly negative attributes.  

Firstly, proponents of the idea of cultural appropriation seem to often adjust the borders of what counts as appropriation. Both white people with cornrows and Football teams with American Natives for mascots are equal examples of conscious aggression against minority cultures by their metrics. This seems like a disingenuous and vague standard for appropriation, so I’d like to get it out of the way quickly. Racial mimicry cannot be so casually lumped in with the idea cultural mingling. Caricatures of American Natives as mascots, people dressed up in Blackface and other acts of ethnic mockery aren’t appropriation or borrowing, they are simply displays of racism and prejudice. There’s quite obviously nothing being taken on by the dominant culture in these forms, so calling this appropriation seems to just be an easy way to add credibility to their claims. Therefore, I will be contending with the positions based around the ‘problematic’ cultural borrowing put forward by the social justice community.

The core beliefs in the idea of appropriation are pretty messy as they are rooted in the sense of cultural and ethnic authenticity. Many seem to believe that an experience is represented in a single hairstyle or item of clothing. This often leads them to argue that it is in poor taste for people not of that experience to consume it. In this general rule, centered around the sanctity of the experience of the individual, belonging to a particular race grants one ownership in the aesthetic of their traditions. I would contend that this seems to ignore the real world implications of commercialization and the derivative nature of culture.

The ideal scenario of those against cultural integration is one in which other cultures are represented, but only by those who can claim membership to these cultures. This representation can be in clothing, hairstyles, and cuisine. Furthermore, those that are allowed to commodify them would be those belonging to that identity. This comes to the conclusion that fighting for an indigenous-style capitalism is a useful challenge to systemic racism. The view that supporting the more colorful bourgeoisie to sell the relics of the culture is entirely wrong headed as a strategy in dismantling racism. Their main reasoning for this is that ‘outsiders’ using another’s culture demeans and cheapens that culture. In reality though, there isn’t a difference in whether it’s commercialized by the indigenous or the ‘outsider’, and no concrete reasons for why it would be otherwise have yet to be explained by the social justice community. Bottomline, white guys with tribal tattoos are tacky, whether done by a white artist or someone of Maori descent. However, this idea’s worst result is the distraction it acts as from the more pressing issue for the people they are trying to protect, their stratification. The social justice community certainly understands that wealth disparity is an issue for people of color, but their Liberal politics lend to little more than a praxis of pitying the poor and recognizing the privilege of wealthy whites. Although “white guilt” is largely a term championed by fedora-clad Alt-righters, it’s possibly the reason why those seeking justice to see appropriation as a major component to the plight of non-whites.That sort of thing happens when you don’t see class as the major factor in racial disparity.        

The idea that a trend generally attributed to a non-dominant culture becoming more widely accessible being a bad thing, traces back to this sense of authenticity. It becomes more clear as you read their remarks that the opposition to cultural integration(what they call appropriation) is largely anger over a cultural trend becoming acceptable only once it becomes part of the dominant culture. It is that they are essentially witnessing a natural process as different cultures share a space. Growing up black, a common sentiment was “you knew a fad was dead once white people started doing it”. I find this significant because I see it as an example of how natural this cultural inheriting is, that it almost happens as clockwork. Culture by its very nature is derivative, even many of the oldest incarnations of cultures we can look back to took on the attributes of the less dominant cultures around it. Cultural appropriation as conscious aggression against non-whites seems highly unlikely, even conspiratorial when any sort of historical lens is put on the phenomenon.

Currently with the SJ movement, outrage is manifesting over traditional black hairstyles being ‘appropriated’ by non-blacks. A certain kind of almost racial realism creeps up in this dialogue, as they offer that blacks must hold on to their identity by keeping these traits as a signifier for those who have lived the black experience. The rallying of those who have lived an oppressed experience is a fine cause, but it should be understood that the introduction of their cultural symbols is not an aspect of their oppression in the grand scheme. With the rise of the black celebrity, their aesthetic is becoming heavily incorporated into the dominant culture in America. The black image has been in close proximity with popular American culture long enough to have this dominant culture take on those characteristics. It should be acknowledged that this revolves on a separate axis from actual views on black people and our treatment by this culture. The SJ community confuses some of the causation in the situation, believing if a culture adopts from another it logically must respect that culture. Unfortunately, this is not it often works.

   Although the anger over white use of black hair comes from an inaccurate view of this phenomenon, black people have a right to the anger of the stigmatizing of their hairstyles and aesthetic. The act of having your own natural hairstyles seen as ‘unprofessional’ and seeing the white people use it and not have similar criticism should make blacks, in this scenario usually black women, upset. However, the target should be the injustice and racism in the workplace, the policing of others ability to simulate black hair is fruitless. It’s baffling these people don’t see the employers in this case as the problem, they would rather go after non-black celebrities who sport black hairstyles. If your movement’s trying and expecting to convince a teenager from the Kardashian family to reverse her ways and champion civil rights, you have quite a few problems.

The culmination into what the social justice community sees as the fight against cultural appropriation is a mix of good intentions and wasted outrage. It seems to be carrying on the liberal tradition of observing problems and refusing to look at underlying roots, substituting any sort of resolution with a pretty gloss paint. It also heavily ties into this need to claim national/traditional pride as a way to fight racism, and flirts much too closely with separatism. This belief that oppression of minorities will be weakened by a re-connection with their culture completely misunderstands how the subjugation of a people happens.

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