Appropriation or Appreciation?

I’m a black immigrant African woman living the United States. Thus, I fall in the minority group, which also means I claim a culture that is unique and celebrated across the globe. When people of different cultural backgrounds adopt styles (usually outward expressions through fashion) original to my culture, it usually sparks discussions on the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation. While appreciation suggests a genuine respect for the borrowed traits of the minority culture, accusations of appropriation surface when members of said minority perceive that such traits are unjustly presented as a staple of the dominant culture, or in disrespectful disregard of its origins.

There have been countless instances of white celebrities sporting hairstyles or fashion choices generally known to be staples of African culture. A recent example is Kim Kardashian’s “Bo Derek” braids situation. Other examples include Kylie Jenner’s lip augmentation frenzy, amid countless other instances. And it’s not just with African culture. The Asian prom dress on a white girl also springs to mind.

Those who argue appropriation are usually of the minority group, and argue that adopting these cultural traits constitutes a blatant disregard and/or disrespect for their origins. Others say there is usually no credit given to the pioneers of such styles, or like in the case of “Bo Derek” braids, credit is given where it isn’t due.

People copy what celebrities do. As such, when celebrities make such fashion choices knowingly or unknowingly presenting them as original creations, trend followers copy theses choices. As a result  pop culture associates these trends with the celebrities who made them popular, instead of their cultures of origin, thus shifting the focus once again, a way from the minority group. Case in point; it is widely presumed that the Kardashians “started” the big  booty and big lips trend. However, both those physical traits are staple features of African women’s natural physiques, traits which were ridiculed in the past.

While many are staunch critics of cultural appropriation, there are others who see it the other way. Personally, I don’t imagine that when Katy Perry donned her Asian geisha attire at the 2013 American Music Awards, she was thinking “I hope I piss off all the Asians”. I also don’t think Beyoncé hoped to alienate her Indian fanbase with her Coldplay collaboration.  In an article for Odyssey, Kiana Cozier states; “while there needs to be an intimate and exclusive space within cultures, there must also be a warm and welcoming space for others to learn about other cultures.”

The point is this; know the obvious cultural no-nos; ie blackface, or “acting like” a culture, Cozier says. But also know when such representations are harmless. This then begs the question, has popular society become too sensitive? In my book, we have with regards to this particular issue. As long as credit is given where it’s due and people aren’t ignorant about the fashion choices they make, I see no issue with it. Frankly, I’m proud, because in the case of African adaptations, I’d like to see the world adopt African culture in a genuine way.

There’s no clear demarcation. Where do you draw the line? For this reason,  each individual is entitled to their reactions of acclamation or dismay when such things happen. There’s no right or wrong answer.

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