In a country as diverse as America cultural exchange is a necessary and normal part of life. But I’ve come to realize that, when it comes to black women, the rules of this exchange are very different and often work against us. That is when cultural exchange becomes cultural appropriation. Here is what it looks like to me;
1. Black women are copied for profit but don’t financially benefit from their own culture in the same way
There is something about a white woman doing ‘what black girls do’ that fascinates America. So women like Iggy Azalea, Fergie and the Kardashians can heavily adapt elements of black female culture and ride them to the top of their respective arenas while black women doing the same things don’t attract the same level of interest. And I don’t say this to diminish the hard work these women put into their careers. But when Beyonce singing traditional R&B is no longer a sellable concept, while ‘blue eyed soul’ artists like Meghan Trainor and Adele climb the charts, the dichotomy becomes clear. Super producer The Dream;
“What’s crazy is that blacks can’t do soul records any more. We love Adele singing it, but Beyoncé singing it? No.”
2. Black women are copied but not supported
When they need a sassy or magical black sista-girlfriend, non-black women are there for it. But when black women face real violence and discrimination, we are often met with silence. A 15-year-old black girl is slammed to the ground by a white police offer and feminist groups are silent. Rihanna tortures a fictional white woman in her Bitch Better Have My Money video, white feminists are up in arms. The inconsistency is disconcerting.
3. Black women are copied and not credited
For all the ways in which our style is copied you would think black women would have a reputation for trendsetting. That there would be countless thinkpieces about our unique style and contribution to American beauty.
But when flaunting derrieres came en vogue, it was Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez who were credited with making it popular despite the parade of ample-bottomed black women who came before them, and the fact that big bottoms are a common occurrence among black women. Bantu knots are called mini-buns and credited to Marc Jacobs. Kendall Jenner and Kristen Stewart are credited with making cornrows a hot style. Baby hairs are high fashion. Miley Cyrus is the public face of twerking. Hipsters at music festivals rock box braids and African dashikis and it rarely ever comes back to the black women who created and popularized those styles. It’s almost as though America goes out of its way to erase black women and dissociate them from the trends they innovate.
One of our writers, Geniece, has a sociology degree from Harvard and recently wrote an article entitled Why Are Academics Ignoring the Natural Hair Movement. Her conclusion is searingly poignant;
I would argue that one reason for the dearth of academic research on the issue is an unfortunate trend in social science that focuses on the problems faced by some groups, rather than their revolutionary successes… In social science, women of color and specifically black women, are often studied in the position of an oppressed group. Case in point: I can barely go one week without reading a study or citation that discusses the high rate of single black women/black women with children born out of wedlock.
What about the significance of black women, who in the span of decade, have harnessed social media, created blogs, vlogs and hair products in order to self-educate and challenge a standard of beauty that reigned in our society for hundreds of years? The natural hair movement, I would argue, is much more than “just hair.” It is not just about individual style choices. Collectively, this movement demonstrates the ability of a so-called “oppressed” group to mobilize cultural, economic and technological resources to define their story and shape their movement. Therefore, the relative silence in academe is due to in part to the challenge of reconciling the empowerment of a group that has long been characterized as weak due to racism, sexism and classism.
Which brings me to my next point…
4. Black women are copied but are comically (mis)represented
Let’s take a look at two YouTube personalities.
Glozell, vlogging since January 26, 2008
3.7 million subscribers
634 million channel views
Most popular videos include My Push Up Bra Will Help Me Get a Man and Is That Your Breath
Naptural85, vlogging since August 8, 2009
617,000 Youtube subscribers
50 million channel views
Most popular videos include How to Cheat a Flexi-Rod and Do It Yourself: Homemade Hair Deep Conditioner
I’ll let you guess which one is more popular with white YouTube viewers and which is more popular with black YouTube viewers.
The representation of black women America is most interested in portrays us in the worst light — as loud, unintelligent, unfeminine and undesirable. So we are being copied even as we are being constantly publicly humiliated.
And not only that, America loves to remind black women of our ‘place’ at the bottom of the beauty totem poll. Viola Davis is not classically beautiful, Serena Williams’ arms are manly, Michelle Obama is fat, Zendaya Coleman’s faux locs are gross and Psychology Today declares that black women are objectively less attractive. All of this, ALL OF IT, as our beauty and style trends are copied down to the last detail.
5. When black women speak against cultural appropriation they are punished, or called paranoid and petty
When we point out the ways that cultural appropriation affects us, we are punished.
‘It’s all in your imagination, because after all, who would want to copy black girls?’
‘There are bigger issues to talk about than this’
‘Shut up. Nobody cares.’
Now let’s step back for a second… Amandla is a 16 year old child. She just attended her prom. She is a child actress who has never been caught up in drinking, drugs or illegal activity, unlike many of her industry peers. And yet her 32-word comment inspired the 47-year-old Cohen to attack her publicly, and hundreds, hundreds of news outlets to cover this ‘story’ with an overwhelmingly disapproving and angry tone. That is intimidation and silencing at its finest. And never mind that Amandla never once said that white girls shouldn’t wear black styles. But who cares about semantics when you are sending a public message that young black girls have no right to challenge the status quo and assert their voices.
Luckily we are not defined by how mainstream America treats us. And in the wake of America’s insidious messaging towards black women, we should continue to celebrate and document our beauty culture and to innovate and uncover traditions. We owe ourselves that much.