Appropriation or appreciation?


photo by Amani Canada

I really love braids and dreads. I wanted to let my hair dread, but I discovered that this was actually something quite controversial. After further investigation, I realized I must have been living under a rock, because this is called cultural appropriation.

To sum it up, that is when a dominant cultural group takes the cultural expressions of a minority group and uses it to look exotic. Wow, well that is exactly what I was trying to do, right? I wanted to look different and so I was taking a hairstyle that I thought was cool and trying it out. I also have the privilege of never having experienced discrimination related to the hairstyle, so there is no long-term impact of me choosing to wear my hair this way.

Arguably, dreads have been around for centuries: the Celts, the Vikings, even Egyptians had dreadlocks. But in contemporary cultures, dreads have been synonymous with Rastafari movement and African American culture. Also, the dreadlock is seen by some as a “˜dirty’ hairstyle, therefore having all sorts of damaging racial implications. Simply put, black people experience discrimination when wearing dreads, and white people don’t.

Cultural mixing will inevitably happen with time, and I am a person who really appreciates cultural differences. I celebrate them! I thought that by choosing to wear a hairstyle that is associated with African American culture, it’s like me saying, “Hey! This is cool. You are cool. I want to be like you!” Imitation is a form of flattery, right?

I mean no harm, and in fact, I would consider myself an activist in regards to a variety of minority issues. There are a lot of scenarios where people are criticized for all sorts of displays of culture that they don’t realize might offend someone. Avril Lavigne “” though she has a huge following in Japan “” was accused of cultural appropriation when she dressed as Hello Kitty in a music video. There are countless white rappers who are deemed “˜wangstas’ because they are acting like wannabe gangsters and appropriating hip-hop culture.

I’m not sure where to draw the line. Does that mean I can only wear clothing that has been deemed culturally appropriate for a white girl to wear? Like, man, I don’t know if I can pull off the Nike shorts-Chaco combo for long!

I see this conversation as a huge gray area. I understand and see both sides, truly. Why can’t it be seen as me showing my appreciation for something cool about your culture instead of me taking advantage of it? But I am also aware that I can’t really understand or appreciate the difficulties minorities experience every day.

I think the key difference between appropriation and appreciation is respect, acknowledgement and understanding. If I choose to wear a color or a pattern that is from another culture, I should understand its meaning and be open to discussing how that culture is beautiful. By wearing it, I am choosing to promote, accept and model symbols from that culture.

Religious symbols, in my book, are off limits; I am not about to put a bindi on my forehead “” as done at events such as Coachella. But, I think I would like to learn about Hinduism, understand henna and wear it. Maybe another rule, too, would be to use the symbol as it was originally intended to be worn, for example “” don’t wear a full-length Dashiki during the day, as in Rwanda they are considered house clothing.

I think this is really about a larger discussion of what some people call “˜politically correct’ language and I call respectful communication and behavior. Today, with so many gray lines about how to speak, act and dress without offending someone, I think the best way to navigate it is to examine why and how you do things. You might make a mistake, as I have before, but there is a way to talk about these things constructively. A lot of Americans might feel censored because we don’t want to hurt anyone, and so instead of risking it, we just stick to what we know is OK. I still don’t have dreads, and I probably won’t get them.

I want to make sure I do it in a way that is not appropriation, but appreciation. I don’t want to be just a white girl; I want to be a person, a human on the earth that likes all of the ways that other humans dress, speak, express themselves and look.