Cultural Appropriation Was Always Inexcusable

In the midst of the global reckoning on race, it's time to end appropriation in the fashion and beauty worlds.

Do You Understand Appropriation Yet?
Photo: Demitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

It has become harder for Americans to remain ignorant about the treatment of Black people in the U.S. — especially as video evidence surfaces showing the horrific violence, particularly at the hands of police officers, that is inflicted on the Black community. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white police officer was a spark that ignited the most recent nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, believed to be the largest movement in U.S. history. Protestors are demanding justice for Floyd and others, including Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain, and equal rights.

The swell of support for the movement got me thinking about the countless instances of cultural appropriation in the fashion and beauty industries over the years. In light of this long-overdue reckoning on race, will Americans finally understand the problem of appropriation?

When Black culture and trends are (mis)appropriated by the white majority in these industries, the creators of that culture — Black men and women — do not see profit. Or representation. Or power. This appropriation without compensation blatantly tells Black people, “Black is cool — unless you’re actually Black.”

Susan Scafidi, the academic director of Fordham University’s Fashion Law Institute and a Yale Law School alum, defines cultural appropriation as taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expression, or artifacts from another culture without permission. The fashion industry is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to appropriation, and designers have by and large responded to criticisms and callouts with nothing more than lip service while they continue to riff off of hip hop culture and stack their runways with mostly white models.

Year after year, luxury fashion brands (particularly European houses like Comme des Garcons and Valentino, as well as the American designer Marc Jacobs) send white models down the runways in Black hairstyles, only reinforcing the problem. The beauty industry is similarly guilty, rolling out “new” looks that Black people have worn for generations, the same hairstyles for which they have been discriminated against. “[Certain styles are] a result of surviving and creatively expressing a sense of resilience and pride” among Black people, says Kimberly Jenkins, founder of The Fashion and Race Database, an open-source platform working to "expand the narrative of fashion history and challenge mis-representation within the fashion system."

Take cornrows, for example. Bo Derek, a white actress and model, ironically enough popularized the style amongst a white American audience when she wore them in the 1979 film 10. But history tells us that cornrows originated in Africa, and intricate braiding patterns indicated what tribe a person belonged to. It’s impossible to fully understand the history of braids without also speaking on slavery, as traffickers shaved Black women’s heads to strip them of their humanity and culture before boarding them on slave ships to America. Braiding in the U.S evolved as a secret messaging system between enslaved people to communicate maps to freedom. For a white person to wear this style, it’s purely out of vanity. The appropriation is drowned out by Instagram and Twitter "likes" that ignore and distract from the painful history that preludes today’s issues around racism and police brutality against the Black community.

But, beyond braids, Black culture has become so mainstream and synonymous with popular culture. So why, then, are some Black trends within fashion and beauty described as “ghetto” or “ratchet” when Black people wear them, but deemed “high fashion” or “trendsetting” when they’re seen on a runway or privileged person?

Do You Understand Appropriation Yet?
Thierry Orban/Getty Images

In 2018, model Salem Mitchell was called “ghetto” by an Instagram user when she appeared on Vogue’s Instagram page wearing box braids. When Zendaya wore dreadlocks on the 2015 Oscars red carpet to remind people of color that their hair was good enough, then-Fashion Police host Giuliana Rancic said that Zendaya looks like she “smells like patchouli oil or weed.” But when Kylie Jenner wore faux dreadlocks for a magazine cover story, she was described as edgy, raw and beautiful.

“Suddenly everyone from all cultures seem to be fascinated with all things Black — from our bodies, hair, clothes, music, and even the ghetto itself,” said Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry, who wrote the grown-ish episode, “Strictly 4 My…” that dialed into the many perspectives around Black appropriation. “While it’s great to be celebrated, why not celebrate Black people doing those things when they do them, and not wait for a white celebrity to conveniently and momentarily recycle those things from [Black people] for it to then become validated? It’s a direct slap in the face to the group of people who have been scrutinized, mocked, degraded and even discriminated against over the years for doing it.”

The fashion and beauty industries, along with the oft-white celebrities they employ as the faces of their brands, aren’t only feeding off Black culture for the sake of seeming “new” and “cool” and “edgy” — they’re profiting from it. This goes beyond giving credit where credit is due. Black people are literally not getting paid for what they created. Meanwhile, others are reaping the monetary reward, gaining power and influence, and social cachet along the way.

Serial offenders like Kylie Jenner abuse Black culture for personal and profitable gain, like when she posted a picture wearing cornrows to draw attention to her new wig line in 2015, which resulted in activist and actress Amandla Stenberg calling her out for “cash cropping on her cornrows.” As recently as this year, Jenner wore her platinum blonde hair in twists, a protective style in the Black community that women can legally get fired for wearing in the workplace.

Many fashion brands have, in recent, weeks stated that they are against racism, but critics and Black people are screaming hypocrisy and seeing straight through those Black Lives Matter social media posts.

Take, for instance, the French luxury brand Celine, which posted a black square with a seemingly supportive caption that was quickly called out by Hollywood stylist Jason Bolden, who accused the brand of not dressing Black celebrities for the red carpet unless they were working with white stylists. It was further exposed that Black model representation for Celine’s women’s and men’s fashion shows from Spring 2019 to Fall 2020 ranged from only 6% to 12%.

Of course, there are some brands putting their money where their Instagram posts are. Glossier has donated $1 million to BLM and black-owned beauty brands; Fenty Beauty temporarily halted business in support of #BlackoutTuesday; Sephora allowed Beauty Insider members to redeem their points as donations to the National Black Justice Coalition; and Aurora James, creative director and founder of shoe brand Brother Vellies, created the 15% Pledge, which asks retailers to ensure that at least 15% of their shelf space is dedicated to Black-owned brands. (Black people account for 15% of the population in the United States.)

In 2020, cultural appropriation is no longer an issue that can be excused by offenders claiming to "not know" that sending a white model down the runway with cornrows is disrespectful. In an ideal world, this would perhaps be called an "appreciation" of culture — but we don't live in that ideal world. Americans never have. So where do we go from here? Is it enough to acknowledge the contributions of Black people?

“Advocating for Black people against racism, or simply acknowledging the historical or political significance behind a trend or a statement has become trendy and performative, complicating matters even more,” said Rice-Genzuk Henry. In other words, appropriation where a non-Black person acknowledges in an Instagram caption that her hairstyle or outfit was popularized by Black culture, is still appropriation.

Some have suggested paying royalties as a means of monetary compensation. But Scafidi, the Fordham professor who also authored Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, says, “Royalty payments to the members of a cultural group as a whole can be complicated, as they raise the question of who is part of the group and should receive them.”

“The system of intellectual property rights is designed around individual authors and inventors and not collective cultural creativity, so it is usually difficult to argue as a legal matter that a cultural group ‘owns’ its own creations, even when the ethical claim is clear,” she continues.

Culture as a whole is not an intellectual property that can be traced back to one specific person or group of people in the way that one might be able to trace a song or movie idea. Instead, culture is a mosaic of ideas and expressions that have developed over time.

“It’s impossible to figure out complete ownership, as you can see bits of history in almost anything,” says Ruth Carter, costume designer for 2018's Black Panther. “We just have to give back to everything important to the advancement of our world and to the environment. It has to become the responsibility of those who are capitalizing on it the most.” In other words, it falls on white and non-BIPOC to learn and recognize the origins of their new favorite “trend.”

Some defend appropriation by saying that we should be able to borrow from each others’ cultures, and learn from them, creating a two-way exchange. However, the issue with Black appropriation, particularly in the U.S., is simple. As Carter points out, “We live in a country that dehumanized [the Black] race; that put Uncle Ben on our rice and Aunt Jemimah on our syrup for decades without any correction, reparations or sensitivity to the culture it dismantled.” A cultural exchange is only possible when both cultures are treated equally with dignity and respect.

When culture is used for financial gain and doesn’t contextualize or convey the truth to the image, the trend, or the graphic — that's a problem. It drains out all meaning and depth and goes straight to the cash register.

“Appropriation can be oppressive,” says Constance C.R. White, author of How To Slay: Inspiration from the Queens & Kings of Black Style. “Many know what they’re doing [is wrong], and some are woefully ignorant, [and that’s no excuse]. People are ignorant as part of systemic oppression. They void the significance as part of the oppression.”

“I believe we can share each other’s cultures,” adds White. “However, it’s problematic because it’s used as another piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is widespread systemic inequality and disenfranchisement of Black people. ‘You take my afro, but I can’t get a job or a promotion because my hair doesn’t look like yours? I can’t kneel to call attention to an area that desperately needs improvement in our society, but an officer of the law can kneel on someone’s neck and murder or maim him?’”

Sashà de Oliveira , Toronto-based stylist who has styled multiple Nike shoots including those with tennis champion Serena Williams, says that non-Black public figures who appropriate Black culture, but wouldn’t adopt our lives, must not only re-educate themselves, but become more mindful in understanding cultures and using their privilege to demand diversity on their teams.

South Central L.A. native Rice-Genzuk Henry is leaving no room for error for appropriators.

“Black hairstyles, music, fashion, the way we speak ... none of this is a temporary moment or a cool trend for Black people. It’s a lifestyle and a culture that we created for ourselves as a form of expression after hundreds of years of being marginalized, dismissed, and having our ancestral culture eradicated. So unfortunately, for me, no amount of activism or acknowledgement, well-intentioned or not, feels like a fair exchange or justification for putting our culture at risk of being stolen again. And it certainly isn’t something that should be capitalized or exploited and then discarded when there is no more to gain from it.”

One way to exhibit good will towards Black culture is to invest those profits back into Black communities. After Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele was called out in 2016 for ripping off a jacket that, in the ‘80s, Dapper Dan created for Olympic sprinter Diane Dixon, Gucci partnered with Dapper Dan on a capsule collection, and helped him reopen his studio in Harlem.

But the best way to avoid crossing lines into cultural exploitation and plagiarism is to hire Black people as designers, artists, creators, storytellers and visionaries, and give them ownership and control within brands so that Black people can monitor and decide what’s being promoted, who’s being hired, how these products are being marketed, and most importantly how the profits and opportunities are being redistributed back into Black communities.

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