Last week, Hollywood’s flavour of the season Priyanka Chopra, chatted with Chelsea Handler on her show, and while it was all overall a fun chat, Chelsea dropped a slightly offensive, uninformed white-person question – “Did you know English when you came over (to America)?”. The actress coolly responded with facts and figures about India’s comfort with the English language, as if she was just asked the nutrition label content of her yogurt.
Cut to last year when Kylie Jenner debuted those famous cornrows in an Instagram picture titled ‘I woke up like disss’, and everybody (led by Amandla Stenberg) went ballistic. No, not because she switched from her ocean blue hair overnight, but because she managed to piss people off for appropriating Black culture with her hairstyle.
Recently, her sister Khloe Kardashian was called out for posting a picture of herself wearing Bantu knots, re-captioned ‘I like this one better’ from the original ‘Bantu babe’ (the same style that fired up a controversy when Mane Addicts called them ‘twisted mini buns’).
While Chelsea’s question was a brazen display of stereotyping, celebrities constantly seem to toe the fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation: Pharrell in a regal Native American headdress on the cover of ELLE, Chris Hemsworth in Native American garb in an Instagram he’s now taken down and apologized for, Beyoncé’s henna-ed hands in Coldplay’s Hymn For The Weekend, Rihanna posing in a niqab asked to leave an Abu Dhabi mosque, every Katy Perry video ever – the list goes on, and I’ll be honest, it does get pretty confusing at times.
What qualifies as something to be offended by? Especially considering Halloween just went by, and people’s costumes ran the gamut from geishas to ‘sexy’ Native Americans.
For starters, it might be a good idea to relook at what cultural appropriation actually means:
According to author Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, cultural appropriation is “taking from a culture that is not one's own, (its) intellectual property, cultural expressions and artefacts, history and ways of knowledge.” Where does the problem kick in? The unspoken power play in the mix – that of the colonizer taking from the colonized – which brings to my mind an essay on Orientalism by Edward W. Saïd we had in Cultural Studies class one semester in college, where he equates orientalism to cultural appropriation because it involved taking pleasure in making another group the ‘Other’ and stripping them of their identity.
Cultural appropriation by this definition is definitely not something anyone should be indulging in, but being a cornrow and Halloween enthusiast myself, I know we obviously don’t intend to offend the group we’re symbolizing. I mean, I get it – you think you’re just wearing a sombrero and a poncho because you actually like Mexican culture (and think you’d look cute with a ‘stash).
All innocent intentions, but here’s why dressing up in a subjugated group’s garb is not okay: Because a Mexican looking at you masquerading around town would feel the same way you feel when they still portray Indians as a ‘Raj’ with the annoying stereotypical Indian accent in American films and shows. What you’re doing is creating a costumed character out of an entire culture – not cool. Same goes for dressing up as a Muslim terrorist (even it’s for a distasteful prank) or a Native American. As you might’ve been informed, all Muslims are not terrorists (or the other way round), and the regal Native headdress is a stereotype condensed to an article of clothing. Did the Natives, who rightfully have an artistic right on the headdress, profit from its sale? Were they credited for their lovely creation? Nope, it’s just you trick or treatin’ while dressed as a reminder of colonial power structures.
That being said, there is a very blurry boundary between experimenting with cultural symbols intentionally, even aesthetically – and just being a hipster in a headdress. We could ask why the community of nurses don’t have an issue with being unnecessarily portrayed as ‘sexy’ or why it’s okay for your Christian friend to wear a bindi but it’s somehow eye roll-level offensive for a white, British friend to do so? But here’s the thing – nurses as a community don’t come from a history of slavery and your Christian friend’s forefathers didn’t equate your forefathers to dogs for more than a century. While we’re all for freedom of self-expression, it’s only fair you think about the statement your clothes are making in the specific circumstances.
So wear all the cornrows you want (take note, Kylie Jenner) – because you’re probably in fact giving due credit and promoting the style that Black people weren’t allowed to wear for the longest time – but maybe first try to understand its origin, its significance to its group and its history, so you can then truly admire and pay homage to it. Don’t forget to credit the culture in question, and definitely do not dress up like another culture’s people on Halloween especially, as if that were a free pass. These are some ways to show respect and appreciation, instead of appropriation.
I read in a meme once (oh memes, the true discourses of our age!), that if someone’s asking you not to do something because it’s offensive to them – simple! – just don’t do it. Very similar to what the sharp-witted funnyman Louis C.K. said on his show once:
And at this point, it’s only fair to take a leaf off Priyanka Chopra’s book of diplomacy and loyalty to one’s culture – no offense taken, no Twitter/Instagram slandering, no global controversial dialogue initiated – just slay.