Cultural Appreciation vs. Cultural Appropriation

Remember that time Elvis invented rock n’ roll? Or wait, remember that time girls at music festivals pioneered the feather headband? Better yet, remember when Miley Cyrus invented twerking?

No? Well, you’re not alone. Those people didn’t, in fact, invent those cultural traits-turned-trends. The classic case of “cultural appropriation” arises in music, fashion, slang, and art, and although it can be celebrated as a benefit of living in this “Great American Melting Pot,” it can be a source of resentment and frustration.

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appreciation vs. Cultural appropriation. A fine line.

Cultural appropriation, by definition is “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s cultural elements by members of the dominant culture.” That definition alone is enough to see where the offense can lie. If there were not already enough tension with one culture being clearly labeled as “dominant,” let’s add a little insult to injury by borrowing (stealing) the other culture’s…well, culture.

Most recently, there has been uproar over Marc Jacobs’s models’ hair in his spring 2015 fashion show. The models sported bantu knots, a hairstyle that originates from Africa and has historically been sported by women of color. However, when hair-centered website, Mane Addicts, reported on the fashion, they called them “twisted mini-buns.” The Internet went wild. (The article has since been removed.)

Cultural appropriation in hair

Marc Jacobs models sporting bantu knots. Is it cultural appropriation or inspired fashion?

Now, here’s the deal: the problem is not Marc Jacobs’s use of the hairstyle in his show. The problem isn’t even in giving credit where credit is due. The problem here, is the “dominant culture” dominating yet another thing. On top of that, there is the fact that a portion of said dominant culture has maintained a steady disdain for the appropriated culture for which it constantly imitates. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, cultural appropriation is not a new concept. The very celebration of Easter by Christians can be considered one of the earlier examples of one culture absorbing another’s practices. However, the conundrum lies in where the line between appreciation and appropriation is drawn. Similarly, where does forced assimilation into the dominant culture become appropriation?

The answer is in the dominant cultures’ normative response to the “subservient” or “minority” culture. On a daily basis, do members of the dominant culture view the culture that they imitate as beautiful or encroaching? Is there daily reverence and open-mindedness to the subservient, minority culture, or is there a holier-than-thou peering over the bifocals in dealing with that culture’s elements?

No one is knocking the melding of ideas. That’s beautiful. What is being criticized and unappreciated, here, is the stark contrast between what is accepted and reattributed because it is coveted and what is rejected because it is a reminder that we are less of a melting pot, and more of a salad. What keeps the dominant culture from rightfully appropriating its new “trends” is the fear is that the less-desirable ingredients will be picked over and eventually discarded.