In the age of Miley Cyrus, The Kardashians, and Justin Bieber, it seems like everybody wants to be Black without the added pressure of actually being Black in the United States. Pop culture icons like the Kardashians use Blackness as their favorite accessory, often at the expense of Black people. This action, however, is an example of a phenomenon known as cultural appropriation.
When Miley Cyrus climbed on stage at the VMAs years ago and “twerked” on Robin Thicke, her tongue wagging grotesquely, the Black community collectively felt a confusing mixture of disgust, amusement, and anger.
The words to explain why the actions of these White celebrities were so upsetting couldn’t be formed yet. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, why can’t Black people accept their role as the new “it” concept in mainstream society? White folks have clamored to be accepted into Black spaces since the popularity of Harlem nightclubs in the 30s and 40s, which gladly opened their doors to wealthy White patronage.
In the 1960s, White “hippie” youth wore dashikis and cornrows, beat on hide drums, and recited beat poetry based on jazz and blues rhythms in order to immerse themselves in “counterculture” and stick it to the man. These are all textbook examples of cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is defined as a “sociological concept” in which aspects of a non-dominant culture are adopted by the dominant culture in a way that minimizes the value and importance of these cultural concepts.
For example, when White people wear sacred Native American war bonnets to football games and concerts, this has a negative impact on Native culture and its perception. It trivializes an important aspect of a non-dominant and oppressed people’s culture.
The idea of the oppressor being the ones to appropriate Native culture is salt on the wound. Recently, the idea of cultural appropriation has been gaining notoriety due to the actions of an extremely racist high-fashion industry. White models have been seen both off and on the runway with cornrows, baby hairs, bamboo hoop earrings, and even bodega slippers.
This and other forms of appropriation are insidious because Black women have been historically demonized for these same fashion statements, which they themselves created. When Kylie Jenner pumps her lips full of collagen, gets buttocks implants, and starts dating a rapper a decade her senior, she sends a message that reads loud and clear to both her fans and her critics: Blackness is a costume to be put on a taken off like an expensive watch.
Cultural borrowing, however, is a positive thing. Participating in and sharing another culture makes us better and more tolerant human beings. Enjoying Indian food won’t make you a culturally appropriative monster, deserving of a dragging by Black and Indian Twitter. In understanding appropriation, it is important to be cognizant of the meaning of certain artifacts and practices.
While you can enjoy Indian food and go to an Indian wedding wrapped in a brightly colored sari, an example of cultural appreciation, you cannot wear a bindi, a decorative symbol sacred in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism if you are not a part of that culture or religion.
While the main perpetrators of cultural appropriation are White people, minorities can participate in mocking other cultures through costume and mannerisms as well. In Korea, k-pop, a popular genre of music, frequently borrows from Black American culture and influence. A few k-pop artists have even been called out for their use of Blackface. In the end, cultural appropriation isn’t a complicated concept. It just requires awareness and respect. To the Kylie Jenners of the world, Google is free. You can do it.