Appropriation is definitely a buzzword of the moment. Seems like every few weeks, we get the chance to start pointing fingers at one celeb or another. And with Halloween around the corner, you know the culture vultures won't disappoint in turning various cultures into costumes for their amusement.
The more I write and speak on the topic, I realize that while many of us (myself included) can point out when our culture is being appropriated, we don’t have a complete grasp of the context in which appropriation can exist. We as black people may be guilty of appropriating aspects of other cultures, but straightening our hair or wearing weaves is not one of these instances.
The difference between cultural exchange and appropriation is acknowledgment and inclusion. The difference between assimilation and appropriation is history and power. Marc Jacobs can be aware of the amazingness that is locked hair; he can admire locks and want to incorporate this beautiful, historic and iconic hairstyle in his runway show.
The appropriation alarms began to ring when he not only failed to equally represent women who shared at least the visual aesthetic of the cultures in which locked hair was first recorded, but also failed to acknowledge any of these originating cultures (African, Indian, Rastafarian) as his inspiration.
Jacobs plucked one aesthetically pleasing aspect of a culture and praised only white figures as his muses for the idea. And to add extra insult to injury, he then asked why we don’t call out women of color for appropriation when we straighten our hair. I am sure that Jacobs’ public relations team quickly got him all the way together because an apology came soon after this supremely flawed point of argument.
It comes as no surprise when mainstream culture fails to understand the historical pressures of conformity for people of color, but many black people agree with Jacobs. Aren’t we taking aspects of European culture that we find aesthetically pleasing (e.g., smooth, straight hair) and wearing it for our benefit?
In order for appropriation to exist, three concepts must also exist: agency (or purposeful action), ownership and permission. Appropriation is defined as “the action of taking something for one’s own use; typically without the owner’s permission.” Without even focusing on the cultural aspect of it, the simplest definition of the word assumes that there was an original, accepted owner—and a new owner (different from the original owner) has now taken possession without asking for consent.
I realize that the minute we add “cultural,” the notion of ownership and consent get cloudy. Since “history is written by the victors,” we get a very skewed documentation of the origins of cultures and how the ownerships that we accept today were achieved. European colonization of America has us following a very Eurocentric standard to this day; however, straight hair is not strictly owned or attributed to European culture.
The idea that any non-European who straightens his or her hair must be taking something from white culture acknowledges just how Euro-based our thinking is, and fails to understand the difference between voluntary adoption and forced conformity.
That emphasis placed on European standards of beauty for black people is not just implied; it stems from an actual monetary value. The notion that kinky, textured hair was worthless came from the fact that slaves with more distinct African features were actually valued less. Slaves with lighter skin and straight hair commanded higher prices at auctions, going for five times more money from potential buyers than those with darker skin and kinkier hair. Even after slavery ended, black women who straightened their hair were seen as being more “well-adjusted” and had an easier time gaining employment from white employers than women who maintained their natural texture.
Often, straight hair was mandatory for blacks to gain entry into schools, businesses and social organizations after emancipation. So black people’s decision to straighten their natural hair texture is not just based on wanting to shrink African features; the decision has a foundation in a century-long rule set that conformity is necessary for survival.
I don’t want to default every issue in the black community to a historical legacy of slavery, but the connection between public acceptance and appearance has been learned and passed down from these times. There is a big difference between appropriation for benefit and assimilation for livelihood.
People of color can be guilty of cultural appropriation. Just as people of color can be prejudiced and can discriminate. I am in no way hinting that oppressed populations can’t turn right around and do the same messed-up stuff to other groups.
When Beyoncé portrayed a Bollywood star in her video for “Hymn for a Weekend,” a song with Coldplay, many of her most committed stans questioned whether she were wearing that culture as a costume. Although there are many connections of black bloodlines in South Asia, some criticized that Bey was picking parts of a culture of which she is not a member in order to benefit herself. India has often been seen as this haven of beautiful colors and “Zen” practices for Westerners to find themselves, while not being a safe place for those originating there. The relationship between America and India has a history of power and authority that has stolen only pieces of India's cultural puzzle and ignored the rest.
As black people in America, we just don’t have this legacy of authority when it comes to defining and maintaining our natural beings. Straightening our hair has deep roots in the historical pressure (and mandate) from others to change our appearance in order to appear less black, to move our minds and culture as far away from Africa as they once moved our bodies.
Shayna Watson is a freelance style and beauty writer who can be heard saying “Natural hair is a lifestyle” at least once a day. A Pittsburgh native, she currently lives in a shoe-box apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y.—which is fitting, since she really loves shoes. You can check out her personal style musings on A Nu Creature and follow her on Instagram.