NEWS
15/10/2019 9:57 AM IST

When Non-Black Minorities Adopt Black Style, Is It Still Appropriation?

The answer is simple: Absolutely.

We’ve seen a wealth of celebrities including Miley Cyrus and the Kardashians appropriating Black culture, plus countless fashion designers sending white models down their runways wearing locs, braids and baby hairs. But what happens when we start to talk about Black appropriation among other minority communities?

Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: AP
Lilly Singh seen at Twentieth Century Fox "Ice Age: Collision Course" screening on Saturday, July 16, 2016, in Los Angeles. 

Lilly Singh, host of “A Little Late with Lilly Singh,” has been called out throughout her career for “modern-day blackface,” wearing baggy clothing, cornrows and dashiki on her YouTube channel. The Canadian-born comedian, who embraces her Indian heritage, has dismissed the criticism on Twitter.

Then there’s actor Shay Mitchellwho’s of Filipino and Scottish-Irish descent. She received backlash on Instagram after wearing cornrows multiple times.

Most recently, YouTuber Nikita Dragun, who is Vietnamese and Mexican, made headlines for wearing gray box braids to show her “love and appreciation for all the gorgeous black women in my life and also to those that follow me,” she wrote on Instagram.

So is this appropriation? Absolutely.

Anyone can appropriate Black culture, including non-Black minorities, according to Keisha Brown, an associate professor of history at Tennessee State University.

“So many facets of Black culture, both historically and contemporaneously, have become synonymous with mainstream American culture,” Brown told HuffPost. “A related issue at hand is the separation of Black culture from the peoples and history that created it. People embrace the hip or popular elements of Black culture, but not Black Americans.”

Instead, “non-Black minorities should be natural allies,” said Lindsey Day, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of CRWN Magazine.

“The thing that’s interesting about an Indian or Japanese or Mexican person wearing American Blackness is that they’ve had the privilege of continuity in their own cultural traditions,” Day said. “They are playing dress-up in something that we’ve fought to regenerate after having centuries of cultural disruption and suppression.”

And yet, time and time again, we’ve seen this narrative play out, such as when mainstream publications dubbed acrylic nails “manicure sculptures,” erasing the history of Black trendsetters like Olympic champion Flo-Jo, who wore acrylic nails for decades before they were deemed acceptable by white editorial standards. Or when a white woman was praised for “inventing” the silk head wrap, which Black women have worn to protect their hair for decades.

“We know that along the way to being accepted, things get lost in translation — or lost completely,” Teela Davis, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in racial identity, told HuffPost in an email. “So, on the one hand, cultural appropriation might be an indication of being embraced by the culture at large. But it’s usually at the expense of losing control of the narrative.”

Carlos Rodrigues via Getty Images
It's all too common for designers to walk white models down the runway in cornrows. This model walked the runway during Gonçalo Peixoto's show at Lisbon Fashion Week on March 10.

Every time the cultural appropriation debate sparks on online platforms like Instagram and Twitter, many Black commenters simply say, “Credit is all we want.” So in a case like Dragun’s, in which she intentionally wrote a lengthy caption detailing the origin of box braids, is this appreciation or appropriation?

“While acknowledging the origin of the style or influence is a good start, that is just the first step in moving from appropriation to appreciation,” Brown said. “Beyond mere acknowledgment of the influence or inspiration [and one’s privilege and platform], an individual should also strive to understand the origin, impact and function of said cultural practices.” 

Black hair has long been politicized and policed in the workplace and beyond. In July, we saw the first piece of legislation banning discrimination against Black students and employees over their natural hairstyles. Legislation such as the CROWN Act is “imperative to add to the appropriation conversation because it continues to send a clear message that Black culture perpetuated by Blacks themselves is still not accepted in deemed places of ‘professionalism,’” Tiffany Packer, an assistant professor at Florida A&M University, told HuffPost in an email. “These types of legislations continue to foster the dilemma of ‘Double Consciousness’ that W.E.B. Dubois discussed in the early 20th century — the internal struggle of blacks to function as an accepted member of society while attempting to remain true to his or her Blackness.”

When it becomes necessary to pass anti-discriminatory laws in supposedly inclusive and accepting places like California and New York, “then what does that suggest about being Black and being able to proudly wear your mane in other parts of the country?” Packer added.

Ultimately, it’s not just about one specific incident or “canceling” the insensitive influencer behind it.

“Cultural appropriation is an issue because of the history of systematic destruction and exploitation of Black culture,” Day said. “America turned free people into ‘niggers,’ and to everyone’s surprise, we created new forms of beautiful expression out of that pain. Those cultural expressions have become America’s greatest cultural exports and engines to build white wealth.”

“Hip-hop and jazz, for example, are indisputably creations of Blackness. But the Black people behind the art forms have gotten the table scraps of the wealth they’ve created,” Day continued. “So when we talk about cultural appropriation, it’s not about policing who wears what hairstyle. We’re pointing to a complex history of the exploitation of Blackness. These are sore spots over old wounds — and a good neighbor would know to leave some things alone.”

With the data, legislation and the history of Black hair, many people who opt into this conversation chalk up Black hair to “just a hairstyle.” But by doing so, they are dismissing the experience of women and girls who add their personal experiences to the conversation surrounding hairstyles that date back to 3500 B.C. in African culture.

Nicole C. Jackson, a psychotherapist who specializes in cultural and systemic oppression among emerging adults, works with many young African-American women who struggle with embracing their beauty and identity “due to the onslaught of Eurocentric standards of beauty often entrenched in the world of social media and other digital platforms.”

“It’s possible to be psychologically affected by the consistent denying, rejection and attempts to discredit our beauty and all that we are,” said Jackson, who is also a licensed clinical and social worker. Potential effects can include depression, anxiety, feelings of inferiority, isolation, low self-esteem and internalized oppression.

Jackson’s advice to white people and non-Black minorities is this: “Other ethnicities should begin with a personal awareness of the impact of culture and a willingness to put their personal beliefs aside to gain a deeper understanding.” For Black women, she said, “give yourself permission to take a timeout from the debate.” 

“We often find ourselves in the role of educating everyone, from our children’s teachers, doctors and co-workers about what it means to be us,” Jackson said. “While our voices are essential to the conversation, it is not our responsibility alone to educate others about their injustice and appropriation.”

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