Cultural appropriation is a term that refers to what happens when one culture, usually a more powerful culture, adopts something from another culture in a harmful way. “Culture is meant to be shared,” say critics of the concept of appropriation, and while cultures aren’t really “meant” to be anything, cultural exchange is a great thing.
However, when people criticize cultural appropriation, they don’t mean that cultures should never mix. Cultural appropriation is when people in power exert that power over an oppressed culture by taking religious, political, or otherwise significant symbols and customs and using them in a way that disrespects that original meaning.
Here’s one example that’s been in the news lately: dreadlocks. While this hairstyle originated in the black community, white people (including celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Kylie Jenner, and Lady Gaga) have begun sporting it, and have been criticized for appropriating black culture.
To white Americans, hair seems like a superficial thing. It’s just a mass of little thread-like things that come out of your head. What’s the big deal? black people, on the other hand, have been brutally criticized for their hair, as well as the rest of their physical appearance, for hundreds of years. This was part of the white colonists’ attempts to paint black people as inferior so they could justify getting rich off of African slave labor. Even after slavery ended, racism persisted, and black people faced extreme pressure to imitate whiteness in order to earn respect. During the civil rights movement, however, black Americans began flaunting their natural hair texture, as well as reviving traditional African hairstyles, in the face of anti-black standards of beauty.
While the origin of dreadlocks is unknown, they were popularized because of the Rastafari movement, a religious movement among black Jamaicans that drew upon Hinduism and the Old Testament and rejected capitalism, imperialism, and materialism because of their role in white supremacy. They wore dreadlocks in reference to certain Bible verses, as well as in resistance to racist standards of beauty. But when Rastafari singers such as Bob Marley became popular, dreadlocks became popular as well among all races, but became removed from their original context.
Then they became associated with anti-black stereotypes, such as drug use: Zendaya Coleman, a black celebrity, was criticized by TV personality Giuliana Rancic for wearing dreadlocks. “I feel like she smells likepatchouli oil, or maybe weed,” said Rancic. Lull Mengesha, an Ethiopian-American author, also recalled in an interview how “a lot of students would always ask me if I had any weed. And I don’t smoke weed… Students will see you as a drug dealer, but they also won’t see you as a student.” These stereotypes have a damaging material impact: a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reveals that while white people are more likely to use drugs than black people, black people are more likely to be arrested for drug offenses. On white people, however, they’re considered an edgy fashion statement: the salon Jean Louis David’s website referred to dreadlocks as “the next big thing,” accompanied by a photo of a white model.
Dreadlocks have been significant because they help resist white supremacy, both within the Rastafari religion and because of the way they defy Eurocentric beauty standards. Wearing them without appreciation for their history and significance, and without standing up against racism, shows disrespect to the black community. Before attempting to borrow something from another culture, make sure you understand what that concept means to people and how it would impact them.