Glorified Thieves

Time to Call Cultural Appropriation What it Really Is

Tiaret Mitchell, J1 Staff Writer

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Cultural appropriation occurs when a dominant race takes in elements of another race’s culture. Cultural appropriation harvests cultural practices, often for profit or personal gain, and takes credit for it. This is something black women know a little too well. From high-fashion  runways to music to art, to women such as Bo Derek and Kim Kardashian have benefitted from the cultural appropriation of Black women. This remains something we see everyday.

Cultural appropriation is not new. This extraction process started during colonialism in European and American societies. This phenomenon is directly linked with not only colonization, but imperialism and white supremacy. Colonial powers not only extracted natural resources but also the cultural heritage as well.

Saartjie Baartman, originally from South Africa and born in 1789, was a domestic servant who lived a life more akin to that of a slave. According to Justin Parkinson of BBC News Magazine, Baartman signed on, probably in a coerced manner, to join a circus that wanted her because of the shape of her body. Parkinson reports,” The reason was that Baartman, also known as Sara or Saartjie, had what was called ‘steatopygia’, resulting in extremely protuberant buttocks due to a build-up of fat. These made her a cause of fascination when she was exhibited at a venue in London’s Piccadilly Circus after her arrival.”

Parkinson’s article continues,  “‘You have to remember that, at the time, it was highly fashionable and desirable for women to have large bottoms, so lots of people envied what she had naturally, without having to accentuate her figure,’ says Rachel Holmes, author of The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman.” Many woman such as Saartjie are believed to be the “true birth” of the Victorian Era.

According to Glendon Francis and Blair Imani’s article, Cultural Appropriation: Past & Present, women like Baartman are believed to have started many of the trends in the Victorian era. In this era, women of wealth wore tight corsets and specially made gowns to make their bottom look bigger. Francis and Imani note that many historians of this era say that the fashion directly copied the physical stature of enslaved African women. This type of behavior underscores the hypocrisy of how African enslaved women were belittled for their voluptuous afrocentric figures, while white women took from them and created trends that were a replica of the enslaved women’s beauty.

A closer look  at today’s fashion trends reveals the same appropriation. Kim Kardashian wearing “boxer braids” to the glorification of “big lips” on people like Kylie Jenner to Marc Jacobs using African derived attire and dreadlocks in his shows, cultural appropriation is still very prominent. “Trends” such as these are seen as unprofessional or ghetto on a black woman, but applied to  non-black women it is seen as editorial and edgy. The culture of black women is not a trend or a fad, there is history behind each look, but that history is lost when it is appropriated.

In year 2016,  Marian Reeds’ third grade daughter made national headlines on news programs like Today  when she was sent home from her elementary school in Belton, Texas for her natural hair. The assistant principal did not approve of her coils and kinks and even told her mother to straighten it. Incidents like these are a slap in the face for black women – especially young black girls such as Reeds’ daughter – when they are told that their natural hair is unprofessional and then see Allure magazine giving white woman afros and Kylie Jenner wearing dreadlocks.

In 1979, Bo Derek was a not very well-known actress who was cast  in the movie Ten. She had a ten minute part. She was a young blonde woman in her most memorable scene coming out of the water with blond beaded cornrows. What happened after this? The style took off, so much so that if you look at some magazines from that time including  prominent magazines like Newsweek, you see what came to be called  “Bo Braids.” This is when cornrows magically became accepted and were seen as beautiful.

In 1981, soon after Bo Derek popularized cornrows, a discrimination suit was filed by a Black woman named Rene Rodgers. According to Ajay Singh of UCLA Newsroom, Rodgers worked for American Airlines and had worn her hair in cornrows one shift. American Airlines stated “they prohibited her and any other employees from wearing braided-hairstyles”. She stated that her hairstyles was a part of her African heritage. The judge ruled against her in federal court because he said that she got it from the movie 10, saying that she was imminaying bo Derek’s hair.

Our culture has never been just a trend, or a fad. This has been something black women have faced in America since they were black women in America. It is intolerable to copy and mimic a culture and oppressed the people from which the culture originated from.

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