On my second night in Senegal, my young host sister spent 20 agonising minutes twisting and pulling my hair into tight braids like hers. As soon as she finished I took a selfie to document my new look, and right as I was about to post it on social media, I deleted it. I didn't know where I stood on the cultural appropriation debate at the time, but I knew enough to know that I didn't want to inadvertently offend anyone for the sake of a few likes.
Since then I've been doing my research and I can confidently conclude that I still don't get it. Put simply, in case you didn't know, cultural appropriation is when someone of a dominant culture adopts something from a marginalised culture, usually without respect or understanding for the context in which it originated. But it's not the definition that throws me, it's the application, because for a phrase that only joined the Oxford Dictionary official lexicon in the last couple of years, 'cultural appropriation' is thrown around fairly fast and loose across the media landscape.
It seems like everyone from fashion designers to pop stars have been accused of appropriation. Jamie Oliver, Katy Perry, Marc Jacobs and J K Rowling are just some of the names that have hit headlines for crossing the line, and recently viewers of 'Strictly Come Dancing' were quick to point out that the cast's opening number, which featured sombreros, skulls and Day of the Dead iconography was textbook cultural appropriation. But with so many of us getting it wrong, it begs the question, are any of us really getting it right?
I first heard the term 'cultural appropriation' when Justin Bieber got on stage at the iHeartRadio awards in 2016 wearing dreadlocks. At the time he came under a hail of criticism from people who claimed that he was adopting an element of African American culture to seem edgy or cool, without sincerely engaging with the issues that African Americans face on a daily basis. Scrolling through the complaints, many voiced their frustration that white people are celebrated when they adopt a hairstyle for which black people are often stigmatised, and some even accused the singer of casual racism.
American editor and author, Ayana Byrd, traces the popularisation of braids in mainstream culture by a white person to the 1979 rom-com '10'. In the film, actress Bo Derik plays a young white woman with long blonde hair braided into cornrows, running across the beach in a yellow swimsuit. Suddenly, cornrows were not only deemed acceptable but beautiful, and women in braids started appearing in magazines across America to the point that the style was retitled 'Bo Braids.' This epitomises cultural appropriation as I understand it. This is a dominant culture taking something from a marginalised culture and rebranding it as its own for commercial gain.
This is different from a black woman straightening her hair because of the distinct power imbalances which are prevalent today. In this instance, black women are not adopting elements of another culture to seem edgy, but often to avoid discrimination by the dominant group, particularly in corporate culture where there are scores of incidents in which black women have been told that their hair in its natural state is unprofessional, untidy and 'too ethnic.' In this light, I can completely understand why a white person being celebrated for a hairstyle that is inherently African would be incredibly frustrating, but I don't believe that it is possible to solve this double standard with intolerance.
Telling someone that something is off limits to them because of their race is the definition of discrimination. We already know that we are living in incredibly divisive times and reserving certain characteristics for certain cultures only serves to segregate us further. When we start saying that braids are only for people of African descent, that kimonos are only for people of Japanese descent, that tartan is only for people of Scottish descent, we set a dangerous precedent that suggests we cannot venture beyond the realm of our own cultural experiences.
The rebranding of braids that took place from 1979 is undoubtedly appropriation, but it's vital that we don't conflate appropriation with appreciation in more contemporary examples. I appropriate to varying degrees every single day: I eat foreign foods, I partake in the occasional yoga class and I listen to hip hop music because these things take me to a place beyond myself. Cultural cross-fertilisation is how we learn about one another and grow. If authors and artists could only express themselves based on the experiences that directly pertain to their ethnicity, class and gender, then we’d be damned to a world of autobiographies and memoirs.
Let me get one thing absolutely clear though: this is not a debate I wish to silence. If we want the privilege of being able to borrow from one another, then we must be prepared to listen sincerely when someone tells us that they feel as though their culture has been misused or disrespected. These are not, as Mary Wakefield dismissed them in the Spectator last year, the indignant complaints of the snowflake generation. When someone tells you that they are offended, it is your moral duty to exercise a little empathy and try to understand where they're coming from.
Because while I do feel as though the phrase 'cultural appropriation,' as it is used today, is conceptually incoherent, this debate has shed light on offensive behaviours that can no longer be allowed to continue. With Halloween having just passed, costumes that may have been acceptable 10 or 15 years ago are now being publicly condemned for racial insensitivity. Turning up to a party with a poncho, sombrero and moustache is no longer admissible because, as Dr Adrienne Keene tells EverydayFeminism, 'You are pretending to be a race that you are not and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so.'
Similarly, dressing up as a Native American might have been a cute costume idea a few years ago, but someone's culture is not your costume. We live in more socially aware times now, and dressing up as a member of a race that has endured genocide, and caricaturing this race for fun or entertainment is not innocent, it's naive. Native American headdresses have also rightly come under fire as popular fashion accessories at music festivals given the cultural significance that they hold. The feathers on these pieces were awarded to warriors from acts of bravery and thus hold the same value as the British Victoria Cross or the American Purple Heart. It's not something to be trivialised in costume.
The cultural appropriation dialogue is fairly new and we don’t have it figured out yet. Living a life of tartan, haggis and Scottish folk music in a world with so much diversity and colour is like going to Disney World and riding the 'It's A Small World' ride over and over again. It would be an absolute tragedy, but so would living in a world where people who feel disrespected are dismissed as over-sensitive snowflakes. The line between appropriation and appreciation will continue to shift as this conversation goes on, but as long as both sides are prepared to listen then the debate isn't meaningless.