Recently there’s been some buzz among my Facebook friends around the topic of cultural appropriation. Again.
At first, I had a lot to say against cultural appropriation. That was before spirit moved me to say this….
First a brief anecdote. Years back I went to work sporting my newly pimped up braids, which I had spent the whole day getting it done. And some hard-earned dollars dug out of my wallet. Yeah. I felt as if I was walking out of an issue of Black Vogue. I got to work and my [white] boss told me my new hairdo was not appropriate for the workplace. I had to take it down, or don’t come back.
With a child to feed and bills to pay, what do you think I did?
Now here we are, cultural appropriation, appreciation or hybridity discussions popping up everywhere. I acknowledge that culture is indeed fluid, ever changing and if we try to trace the roots of many cultural traditions, they would probably have come from, well, somewhere else.
That is one of the arguments for appreciation and hybridity.
The issue of cultural appropriation stems from the shame, fear, forcible removal of traditions from a culture/individuals resulting in a loss of identity.
However, the conflict around appropriation is not just about appropriation. The conflict stems from the shame, fear, forcible removal of traditions from a culture/individuals resulting in a loss of identity. When an individual or an entire group of people cannot proudly claim their cultural traditions; when one is not allowed to identify with who they are – their language, dress, food, spirituality – marks of cultural identity for as long as they can remember, there is a crisis within the individual and community.
Then, to see the face of the oppressor taking on the very same things you were told are ugly, primitive, uncivilized or whatever adjective was used to shame you, it poses a conflict. Sometimes I do think it’s blown out of proportion. I don’t really care if Justin Bieber wears dreads. Yet when the dominant culture masquerades an aspect of a tradition which was, and continues to be oppressed, the pain is relived all over again. And again, and again.
Take the issue of hair, for example. It is a contentious one in African American community. Good hair vs bad hair, forcing mothers to begin treating their kids hair with harmful chemicals to give them “good hair”, that is, hair more like Europeans. As such we’ve internalized the values of the colonizer and turned against each other in harmful ways. Examples like this are the real issue.
In my view, cultural appropriation is just a symptom of a deeper issue, one which has multiple threads, many deeply rooted in a history of oppression and colonization.
Therefore, it is fruitless to be the “appropriation police”, as appropriation is not the root of the problem. It’s like fighting a forest fire with a bucket of water. All these discussions of pros and cons just gives us something to do, mostly because we feel that racism will never go away, so we try to put out the fire with our own little buckets of water. Like the natural hair movement among African Americans, a movement initiated to take pride in our locks, twists, waves and kinky curls as African people. Non-Africans often fail to understand the deep and painful history behind initiatives like this and the resulting cry of “why are you wearing our hair styles?”
It’s not about hair, or dress, or feathered crowns. Really.
Now, when we can gather at the table and dialogue around the real root of the issue, then we may be getting somewhere, at least with a garden hose instead of a bucket.
In the words of Forest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”
I end with this poem…
Pray, don’t find fault with the man that limps,
Or stumbles along the road.
Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears,
Or stumbled beneath the same load.
There may be tears in his soles that hurt
Though hidden away from view.
The burden he bears placed on your back
May cause you to stumble and fall, too.
Read the full poem here: Walk a Mile in His Moccasins – Native American Poetry