Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Cultural Appropriation 101: Allure says you can have an Afro! (No, you can't.)

Make no mistake. With way more than 140 characters at the ready, it's no surprise that Black Tumblr will, on occasion, drag someone more thoroughly than Black Twitter. And Black Twitter, as Paula Deen knows very well by now, will go in on you.  Relentlessly.

With that in mind, it was no surprise that while traipsing through Black Tumblr,  a righteous black woman posted something she found that was especially obtuse. It was yet another example of cultural appropriation at its finest, masquerading as some form of ethnic fun, wherein some white girl with what can only be described as generic Midwestern good looks gets to use my blackness yet again to augment her bland, cultureless existence.  This time, it's my natural hair that's up for grabs. With a few products and very little effort, an Afro -- the symbol of the Black Power Movement, if you will -- is hers for the taking. Not surprisingly, this gem of an article comes to us from Allure, a magazine that has made a point of habitually not including black women in their beauty articles.

Is this how they make up for their lack of diversity? By blackening up white women with an African-American hairstyle that essentially epitomizes our struggle and oppression?

This is a transformation of Rachel Dolezal proportions.  And that's beyond epic.  She paved the way for black womanhood for all and Allure is handing out the road map.


I must admit: she looks a lot less ordinary and milquetoast with this "Afro", now doesn't she.  And isn't that the point? Take whatever we've got, even if its the kink on our heads, appropriate it to amuse yourself and discard it at your leisure when it's no longer fashionable or it no longer suits you.  And why not? Cultural appropriation is, after all, the American way.

What is cultural appropriation?  I'm glad you asked.

The phrase literally means one culture taking parts from another culture.  And yes, this happens all the time. It's damaging when a dominant culture (white people, for example) takes things from another culture that it has oppressed (or in the case of Native Americans, obliterated) without understanding them fully, in context if you will (white people at Coachella wearing gigantic Native American feather headdresses, for example) and using those things that they have taken in ways that they were not originally intended.

No, it's not cultural exchange. If it were, the sharing between cultures would be mutual. And again -- no, it's not cultural assimilation, where the oppressed culture (people of color) adopt aspects of the dominant culture (white people) to survive (discarding their language/culture/traditions in order to survive).

Consider this.

The fun-lovin' white boy in the picture above is wearing a Native American feathered headdress -- originating in the Plains -- an item that has great political and spiritual significance. They were usually worn into battle, hence the name war bonnet, but now they are worn ceremonially. Because the eagle is sacred to their tribe (the greatest of all birds), these headdresses were made from them.

Each eagle feather had to be earned from some great act of courage or bravery and was inserted into the headdress in a traditional way. Needless to say,  you'd have to live a long noble life to get a feathered headdress that would even remotely resemble what this, our Coachella reveler, is drunkenly sporting, which is why you never see young people or children running around in them.

This guy is not alone.

Apparently, you can't get into Coachella unless you wear one of these.  Surprised?

The bottom line is, everything isn't for everyone.  This should be respected but in the age of entitlement, it's flatly ignored. Believe it or not, there are certain things from any culture that no one should say, do or wear.  It is offensive to say the "n" word with abandon unless you are black.  It is forbidden for anyone to touch the Torah -- the holiest book in the Judiasm -- with bare hands.  A yad (usually made of silver) is used when reading it instead of fingers.  It's against the law for anyone to have eagle feathers (and other endangered migratory birds) unless they are Native American.   Context, as it turns out, is everything.

See? You, the dominant culture, really can't do whatever you want. Unfortunately, the dominant culture does it anyway and this -- not fully understanding the thing that you are taking from a culture that you dominate -- is what nurtures and informs lots of stereotypes, misunderstandings and hate.

(If you're at all curious as to what a Native American of the Plains thinks of this hot mess, click here.)

Not surprisingly, white people are shifting their attention from Native American headdresses to African-American Afros. My natural hair has always been a point of contention (more on that some other time) but this is especially insidious, in part because of that oh-so-ignorant counter argument: black women straighten their hair so why can't white women kink theirs up?

I'll tell you why.

 White people have made laws that deny black women the right to wear their hair naturally. Black women are systematically fired, because Blackness.  You are openly considered unprofessional and yes, downright filthy, if you have an Afro.  You are hounded, you are threatened with flat-out expulsion, if you have an Afro.  Black women can't even wear their hair in its natural state in the military. Think about that: if a black woman wants a career in the military -- if she is willing to die for her country -- she has to straighten her hair. Make no mistake: this means painful chemical treatments, expensive weaves, whatever it takes. Anything but an Afro.

If you are a black woman in America, your hair is a battleground -- and it always has been.

At the other end of the table, there are no laws against white women wearing their hair in its natural state.  No one is governing their hair or controlling their hair. Likening their hair to that of a farm animal or some wild beast isn't a part of the lexicon of our culture.  No one is telling them that the texture of their natural hair makes them patently unattractive. They can do whatever they like -- even if whatever they like is my Afro.

Don't get it twisted. So many of us have learned the hard way to love our natural hair.  But white people don't love our natural hair. Unless it's on their heads.  And then they love it a lot. How ironic is that?

Allure should apologize profusely, retract that article immediately and hire a jillion black women to contribute op-eds, beautiy tips and the like, to tilt this situation in the other direction until it levels off. At the very least, they should keep a black friend on hand, someone that isn't afraid to tell them when they're completely off base. Unfortunately -- like those drunken (white) party people at Coachella -- they're way too ignorant, way too out of touch with reality and way too high on their own sense of entitlement and privilege for anything that sensible.  Or empathetic. 

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