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Appropriately Accessorized

Everyone talks about cultural appropriation. As an admirer of cultural differences, I’m constantly checking myself. And, with Halloween costume ideas already taking over the web, I thought it would be good to address it from a different angle.

Let’s define it for the purpose of this article. There’s a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. And appreciation does include participation. You don’t have to admire from afar.

But there’s a caveat: you have to understand and respect not only the origins but also the creators.

Don’t judge me, but, when Halloween comes around, I absolutely love the costumes. And while I’ve never been confident enough to wear the Indian costume, it was definitely something I secretly hoped to one-day wear. (Never mind the obvious sexist idea that all women’s costumes are sexed up and you rarely find just a ghost but a “sexy ghost” – another post for another day)

In my opinion, dressing up like the Disney Princess Pocahontas is acceptable. But dressing up like a Native American, a whole culture, a whole race of people, is not.

What does this have to do with cultural appropriation? Glad you asked. I watched a video where Native Americans responded to costumes sold every October. One thing they repeatedly mentioned was the importance of the prayer beads; how each bead, fashionably placed, should signify a particular prayer. Of course, that would only apply if they had been correctly placed with regard to the tribe and the garb.

For those who are deeply religious Christians, imagine someone dressing up as Jesus. I know I generally feel a bit of a cringe when I see a “Sexy Nun.” (For more than one reason, but you get the point)

So, overall, for me, wearing a culture, religion, an ethnicity, or race is definitely crossing a line of disrespect. Especially when its importance is dismissed and exploited for fashion or a laugh.

I often use hair braiding as a reference here as it’s something with which I am familiar. I’ve even shared how, when I was working in corporate, I was told not to wear them. I was also told that locs or natural hair violated the rule of “kempt hair.” But when those people were on Facebook, posting vacation pictures, braids were acceptable and fashionable.

To add insult to injury, when something my culture created is worn by someone of my culture, it elicits negative responses, stereotypes, etc. But when worn or done by what is recognized as the dominant culture, it’s trendy and edgy (not to mention often dumbed down).

Living in Colombia, I’m very aware of this. I want to soak in the culture. That is, after all, why I chose Colombia. And although I’m not recognizably North American (which plays to my advantage many times) I want to be sure that I don’t steal and strip their rituals of their importance or meaning. I ask questions, listen to stories, and heed advice. Then it occurred to me: I’ve never done that with my own culture.

Hair braiding is African. I’m part of the African Diaspora. I’m a card-carrying (i.e. skin color having) member of that culture. So I just took for granted I can wear what I want. But am I much different from the white people who rock the braids? Can you self-culture appropriate?

What I’ve learned is that braids can indicate what tribe you’re from, age, social position, marital status, religion, wealth, and more. It’s styled different for certain occasions and is considered a social duty to braid someone’s hair. Thus, in some places, it is not a paid service and considered unlucky to thank the braider.

In addition, it’s often performed by a senior member of the tribe while the younger generation looks on to learn. There’s a sense of intimacy, friendship, and love associated.

Perhaps that’s where the disdain comes from when you touch a black person’s hair. The first thing I think is, “I’m not a dog. Don’t pet me. I’m not a sideshow. Don’t stare.” But the second is, “I don’t know you like that.” We can be friends, but that doesn’t mean I’ll drink after you, share my food with you. There are levels to friendship. And my hair doesn’t come with each level.

At the end of the day, cultural appropriation is a thing. And I think the cultures that are consistently worn as an accessory by a culture that still consistently admonishes it when worn by its creators, deserve to stand up and defend it.

It’s often said, that if people loved Black people as much as they loved black culture, we’d be all right. In light of every black person unjustly killed in police stops (or stopped unjustly at all) you can see why people say that. But in light of DACA, you can say the same about Latinos. In light of the Standing Rock, you can say the same about Native Americans. In light of white actors cast in Asian-American roles, you can say that about Asian Americans.

I admit, I did self-convict: realizing that I turned part of my own culture into an accessory. But I put this before you: when Africans were captured and made slaves, many times their heads were shaved because the slave traders considered it unsanitary. If I have only kept traces of it, it’s because it, along with the language that could have been used to explain it to me, was stolen. And all that remains is a remnant of a culture lost and reinvented as some sort of way to connect to a land my ancestors longed for.

To my people of African descent, I encourage you to research what trend you’re rocking. Be able to speak intelligently about its meaning, and understand the importance and honor it appropriately.

And for those who are able to wear our culture and ethnicity without fear of job loss, life loss, discrimination, generalizations, and stereotypes, I urge you to consider that our cultures should not be for sale.

The minute you boil a culture down to a margarita, a costume, entertainment, or just ignore its creators altogether, is the minute you, too, become the oppressor.

Remember, our braids are just as powerful a symbol as the ring your spouse places on your finger. Their prayer beads are just as powerful as the rosary hanging from your car mirror. These aren’t simply fashions you pull from the closet. We deserve for our cultures to be honored and not disrespected. We deserve to be heard and seen.

You can engage in cultural exchange. You can be a culture appreciator. But I implore you: accessorize appropriately.

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