Cultural Appropriation? I say Cultural Appreciation

Kylie Jenner posted a selfie, sporting cornrows, and it has caused a raging debate about culture, race and fashion. As a fashion student, this my my take on the issues of cultural appropriation. Could it really be cultural appreciation?

Amandla Stenberg, a young actress had this to say about the image: ““When u appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards ur wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter.” There was a follow up tweet, which I have not included here as it refers to a wider view on society regarding race and gender.

With over 1.3 million likes and 160000 comments, the sentiments seems to be divided. Generally, people are either agreeing with Amandla or Justin Bieber, who had this to say: “Guys leave her alone, were all trying to figure it out and she happens to be under a microscope! I’m the first to know this. But saying she’s being racist because she has her hair in braids is ridiculous. Let’s focus on the bigger picture and instead of fighting over something stupid, let’s do something about equality — but it doesn’t start here blasting a 17-year-old kid for wearing braids.”

This is the context of the situation in terms of the system we call fashion, put simply. Trends are constantly occurring and are notoriously fleeting in nature. The reasons for this are varied, but it can be attributed to the generation that we find ourselves in, where everything is instant (information overload) and there is constant exposure in an increasingly globalised world. Fashion trends are derived from a culmination of inspirations, from references to the past, sexuality, references to ethnicities, sports and avant-garde design to name a few.

The issue of referencing ethnicities is that it can be appropriated in a way that offends. The elements that become a trend are used in a context that is seen as inappropriate, especially for something that is generally seen as frivolous (fashion). However, that is essentially what fashion trends are. Taking inspiration from a variety of sources in order to create designs and then communicating it to the masses.

It is easy for the lines to get blurred and for lines to be crossed. Some examples of this include Bindi and Red Indian derived trends. But getting back to the issue of cornrows, is it appropriation or is it appreciation? While hair is deeply embedded in politics and carries a lot of meaning, it is not exclusive to that context.

There is no doubt that cultural appropriation can exploit cultures, but let us ask ourselves what exactly Kylie Jenner is exploiting here? Jenner seems to be an easy target, as a number of other artists have tried the hairstyle before and have not received the backlash that Jenner (a 17 year old) has been facing. To call someone racist for incorporating a style related to a culture is extreme at best.

By requiring everyone to stay in their own ‘cultural’ lanes, based on race, gender, sexual orientation or any other form of identity is bound to hit a nerve. Instead, society could be celebrating diversity, understanding each others cultures and embracing fashion as a form of expression.

In accordance with Justin Bieber, lets focus our attention to what the real issues are. Black lives matter. Lets promote that and make it our mission to make real change, in the media and in reality.  More people have heard about and commented on this than  the fact that 7 black churches burnt down in the USA after the Charleston shooting, for example. Its time to stop attacking each other for personal fashion choices and unite in confronting the broader, real issues facing society.

Personally, I believe that Kylie was showing cultural appreciation. I myself have worn braids in my hair and would braid it again. Whether you believe that Kylie was appropriating or appreciating culture is a personal opinion. This has been mine.

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