Cornrows and Keffiyeh: When Culture Sharing Becomes Cultural Appropriation

Thank you to Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil for sharing this extremely on point post by the lovely and talented Amandla Stenberg – known by many of us as Rue, from the Hunger Games. Her short video, “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows,” describes in very honest terms what happens when cultural exchange crosses into privilege and becomes cultural appropriation. Here is the video:

At a time when the tables are turning and we are being forced to confront systemic racism daily, it is impossible to ignore cultural appropriation – our “cultural smudging” as Azalea Banks calls it in the video. But what is cultural appropriation exactly? In Amandla’s words,

“Cultural appropriation occurs when when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes are originated, but is deemed as high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.”

People from other nations speaking English, for example, is not a form of appropriation, while Katy Perry donning cornrows to look exotic very much is.

Katy Perry wearing cornrows in her recent video, “This Is How We Do”

Katy Perry wearing cornrows in her recent video, “This Is How We Do”

As writer Tamara Winfrey Harris noted at her blog, Racialicious, it is the privilege piece that makes all the difference:

“A Japanese teen wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a big American company is not the same as Madonna sporting a bindi as part of her latest reinvention. Colonization has made Western Anglo culture supreme – powerful and coveted. It is understood in its diversity and nuance as other cultures can only hope to be. Ignorance of culture that is a burden to Asians, African, and indigenous peoples, is unknown to most European descendants or at least lacks the same negative impact.”

So, just because you find elements of another culture beautiful or exotic, doesn’t mean that it is alright to express them flippantly. I, for example, own a striking set of African textiles, a genuine Palestinian keffiyeh, Indian saris, henna, and hundreds of other pieces from my travels. As a privileged, white person, it would be easy for me to wear and share these things without a second thought. Why? Because they don’t carry the same legacy of colonization, genocide, exploitation, and domination in my world. They do in someone else’s.

Cultural appropriation could happen if I chose to…

  1. Dismiss the cultures these items are rooted in, saying instead “Relax, it’s just a tattoo.”
  2. Wear what I want without understanding the cultural significance of these items and doing some serious research. That keffiyeh? It’s not a scarf designed to make you look hip and “culturally in touch”, it’s a symbol of solidarity and nationalism, a pattern universally recognized in the Arab and Muslim world, and “symbolic to the cause of Palestinian resistance.” That is not the kind of thing you should casually throw around.
  3. Adopt these items as my own personal expression, when to another human being it could be viewed as something stolen or misused. Cornrows? To Amandla and many more, that is unfair adoption, not worn for the practical purpose of keeping black hair healthy, but simply worn because it’s “trendy.”

As an extremely white, middle class, educated, American, young woman, I will be the first to admit that recognizing my privilege has been a difficult thing to do. When your prideful self says, “I’m not racist. I’m not privileged. I’ve worked hard for what I have,” but your gut tells you, “Something is not right in this place. I am privileged. I have it easy.” it is important to listen, and listen hard.

So what can we do differently? Now isn’t that the question. To be fair, I don’t think I’m the one to ask. I am automatically in a position of privilege, and while I’m learning more every day, I am not the one getting hurt. It’s people like Amandla you should be learning from. But here is what I’ve learned lately. Let me know if you agree!

  1. Give credit where credit is due.
  2. Do your research.
  3. Don’t dismiss the feelings of others. They aren’t “petty.”
  4. Don’t play around with stereotypes. Do not put people in boxes.
  5. No. You do not get to be a Native American for Halloween. Just don’t do it.
  6. Let cultural exchange be authentic! Share what you know, ask more questions, use exchange to better understand the beauty and the burdens of another.

What do you think about cultural appreciation and appropriation? Do you agree that it is harmful? How have you seen this manifest itself in your own life? Have I missed something? Did I miss an edit? Let me know! I’m all ears.

– LB


Originally published for The Turning Point Collective at: