A white, non-muslim woman wore a head covering for a day in order to help understand the struggles of veiled Muslim women. She wrote a heartfelt post detailing how she finally understood the discrimination Muslim women go through. Her post received a mixed response (some positive, some negative) from many Muslim women bloggers and allies.
Also recently, a blog by a white woman chronicling her adventures while wearing a costume afro wig got a lot of negative attention from the black blogosphere and natural-haired black women. The author gushed about how the fro “changed her life” and helped her channel a sense of openness and “fun” in her everyday life. This was also derided as an insensitive act of appropriation.
While these women may have thought they were appreciating different cultures, they ended up actually hurting others. The women in these cases both have something in common -- they claimed they were trying to appreciate the experiences they were borrowing from, and trying to understand it in a better way.
“But,” one might say, “ isn't getting a better appreciation for other races and cultures struggles the entire point of blogs like this? Why should someone’s effort to do so be attacked?”
I understand that the outrage in response to these efforts to reach out might dissuade others from reaching outside their own racial and cultural comfort zones. However, it’s worth examining why these efforts ended up hurting the people who were supposed to be “appreciated.”
Here are some ways you can avoid making the mistakes they made:
1. Credit the Source
Arguably, the most offensive form of appropriation is when a person uses an aspect of someone else’s culture without acknowledgement of the source, especially when that person is profiting off of that stolen aspect of culture.
One example I often see is the appropriation of the Hindu religious festival Holi’s tradition of splashing colorful powder and paint on people as a celebration of springtime. This celebration often results in beautiful photography, but I often see artists using similar techniques with zero credit to its origins. It would be like, for Christians, as if wearing a pretend crown of thorns and fake stigmata became a fashion trend, and the people selling this crown didn't acknowledge its source or significance.
In this case, “appropriation” could just as easily be called “stealing” if the artist is trying to act as if the cultural technique being used is something new and original, rather than something done by others hundreds of years earlier. This form of “appreciating” is actually offensive because it turns what was significant to many into just another thing to be consumed by the majority, and renders those originally attached to that piece of culture invisible.
Crediting the source doesn’t automatically make borrowing from another culture ok, and in some cases it isn’t possible. That’s why it’s important to follow the next step:
2. Educate yourself first
If you’re using another culture in your art, wardrobe, worship celebration, etc, it’s important to not only credit that culture, but to do research on whether you are using it appropriately (or should be using it at all).
One great example is the use of Native American headdresses in art, specifically on women. These headdresses are traditionally worn by men for specific religious, historical, and cultural reasons, and their use by those who haven’t earned the privilege is considered offensive, and culturally they are never/rarely worn on women. Yet it’s often done. Even when crediting the source (and without educating yourself, how would you even know how to properly credit? “Native American” is far too general) use of this headdress for artistic purposes would be offensive.
Some self-education by Michelle, the white woman wearing an afro wig to bring some “fun” into her life, would have taught her about the long standing issues with black women and natural hair, the struggles of going up against western beauty standards, and the fact that many black women are pressured away from wearing their hair in their natural “afro” state in order to keep employment. She was enjoying the “fun” of having natural hair without knowing a single thing about the struggle behind it, which is at the very least, insensitive. In this particular case, hundreds responded to her blog and explained to her why her actions were offensive, but she doesn’t quite get it yet.
Educating yourself also keeps you from perpetuating stereotypes about the culture you’re borrowing from. Michelle made jokes about going to a fried chicken festival, and changed her personality to match what she thought being a black person was like. Many Halloween costumes people wear to ‘embrace’ another culture are, in reality, simply offensive stereotypes. The fact that minority cultures in the U.S. are much more harmed by these stereotypes is just one of many reasons to remember the next step...