Saturday 16 May 2020

Is wearing ‘Black Hairstyles’ truly Cultural Appropriation?

This Essay was originally submitted as an assessment to the module ‘Race, Democracy and Political Ideology’.

Over the last decade, Cultural Appropriation has been thrust into the foreground of public discussion, with one of the most controversial debates revolving around ‘black hairstyles’, such as dreadlocks, cornrows and box braids (Google Trends, 2020). From addressing the erasure of the black community and the unfair stigmatisation of black culture, to whether ‘black hairstyles can really be claimed by one culture, this debate has been polarising.

Cultural Appropriation is broadly defined as the use of one culture’s intellectual property and cultural expression by members of another, and is typically built upon an unequal power dynamic that comes from a history of imperialism and assimilation (Rogers, 2006; Ziff & Rao, 1997).

When it comes to Cultural Appropriation there are some more clear-cut examples, such as stereotypical imitations of different cultures’ traditional clothing being sold as Halloween costumes (Toles-Patkin, 2017; STARS, 2013) or even the incorporation of the Hindu Bindi and Native American headdress into festival culture (Monroy, 2018; Murphy, 2014; Antony, 2010). These examples showcase the blatant devaluation of a culture’s elements for a capitalistic purpose, as well as the diminishment of that item’s meaning and the erasure of that culture’s community: both distinguishing signs of cultural appropriation (Lenard and Balint, 2019).

However, Cultural Appropriation is not always so black and white, with the controversy of ‘black hairstyles’ falling under this category of ‘grey area’. There is a massive divide in opinions when it comes to this example. Some individuals believe that the appropriation of ‘black hairstyles’ to be a continued erasure and oppression of their culture, while others argue that ‘black hairstyles’ don’t belong simply to one culture, and that it’s okay for it to be represented by many different communities (Prior, 2019; Arewa, 2017). The issue is that neither of these groups can speak for their whole culture, which then triggers intense debate.

‘Black hairstyles’ such as dreadlocks are seen as a symbol of power and continued resistance against systematic racism in many black communities in the Western Hemisphere (Kuumba and Ajanaku, 1998). Therefore, the appropriation of those hairstyles as a fashion statement can be a sensitive topic for many, as it is seen as a complete disregard of the history and meaning behind those hairstyles (Richards, 2017). ‘Black hairstyles’ have become a staple of black identity, and so when members of other cultures use them simply as a fashion statement without receiving any negative stigmatisation for their actions, this can result in controversy (Gonzales, 2019). This can be seen with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber who have all been credited for their stylish, edgy ‘new’ hairstyles. Meanwhile, the black community are commonly penalised for wearing the identical hairstyles, as they are not adhering to the Western perception of beauty and professionalism which omits to include their natural hair type (Jacobs-Heuy, 2006). This highlights the unfair standard placed upon black communities due to a persisting mentality of assimilation, which demands their conformity to Western culture, while allowing their own culture to be diminished and absorbed (Cuthbert, 1998). This has resulted in some people arguing that individuals outside of black culture should not be allowed to wear ‘black hairstyles’ unless specifically invited to by the community, in an attempt for black communities to maintain ownership of their cultural elements (Young, 2005).

On the other hand, there are also many who argue that, due to globalisation, the use of ‘black hairstyles’ by other cultures is not actually appropriation. The world is becoming a melting pot where cultures are shared between, and influenced by, many different communities (Rogers, 2006). Dreadlocks are a prime example of this: Historians and anthropologists have found evidence of this hairstyle among Ancient Egyptians, Vikings, Early Christians, the Aborigines and many different tribes of Africa (Aïnouche, 2018). This shows that dreadlocks have existed across multiple cultures; therefore, no one community should be able to lay claim to a cultural element with shared origins. Globalisation is a natural cycle of cultural evolution that, if stopped, threatens a world which is culturally stagnated and segregated (Rogers, 2006).

However, cultural exchange cannot occur when there is an unequal power balance between different cultures (Rogers, 2006). As long as there is a dominant culture, there cannot be a truly equal movement of ideas, practices and cultural elements, but rather the persistence of cultural appropriation, with the dominant culture absorbing and changing minority culture’s elements without giving anything in return (ibid, 2006). This is especially true when considering the prominent history that exists between Western and African cultures (McCall & Parker, 2005). The appropriation of ‘black hairstyles’ by white communities is a signifier of a perpetuated imperialistic ideology, turning black culture into a commodity that can be taken, which harkens back to the use of African people as slaves: treated as objects devoid of value.

Additionally, there is the argument that dreadlocks, cornrows and box braids are simply a hairstyle and can’t belong to only one culture (Lamberts, 2017). ‘Black hairstyles’ can be achieved by many different ethnicities, but this idea that certain people cannot wear a certain hairstyle due to the colour of their skin flies in the face of anti-racist rhetoric that has been encouraged for years: this could start placing unnecessary strain on race relations (Ibid).

Overall, the debate surrounding ‘black hairstyles’ being cultural appropriation has become hyper-individualised. When examining the argument being made, the issues being addressed can be chalked up to the persisting mentalities of imperialism, assimilation and capitalism within our society.
The term ‘cultural appropriation’ was first used in the 1980s as a term to describe a relationship of dominance and exploitation between a global ruling class and a subjected class (Coutts-Smith, 1976 as cited in Hiller, 2006). Rather than criticising one individual for their appropriation of ‘black hairstyles’, we should be addressing the persisting ‘rationale’ that penalises black communities for embracing their culture; questioning why black communities are forced to conform to so-called Western Ideals and challenging why Western Culture remains the dominant culture. The debate surrounding cultural appropriation has become a micro discussion, but in order to address the core issues, there must be a renewed focus on the macro structures and ideologies in place that encourage the systematic oppressing of minority cultures.

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