In Depth

What is cultural appropriation - and how can you spot it?

Justin Bieber accused of insensitivity after debuting new hairstyle

Justin Bieber has been accused of cultural appropriation after revealing a new dreadlock hairstyle on Instagram.

The Canadian pop star posted a picture of his new locks on Sunday, before sharing another image yesterday that prompted Stephanie Cohen, co-founder and legal and political organiser at the Halo Collective, a natural hair organisation, to say he has “no right” to wear the style.

“When I see a white person in mainstream media sporting a black hairstyle, it makes me angry,” Cohen told The Guardian. “I’m angry because this standard does not exist when a black person simply wears their hair in this way. 

“You can’t just wear something so historically significant and ignore the struggles behind what the hairstyle purports.”

So what exactly is cultural appropriation?

Oxford Dictionaries, which only put the phrase into its official lexicon in 2017, defines cultural appropriation as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

Simply put, it is when someone adopts something from a culture that is not his or her own – a hairstyle, a piece of clothing, a manner of speaking, even a type of exercise (yoga, for example).

Bieber, for instance, was previously accused of cultural appropriation in 2016 when an image of him sporting cornrows “prompted outrage on social media”, The Guardian says.

However, says the EverydayFeminism website, that’s not the whole story. Unlike cultural exchange, in which there is a mutual interchange, appropriation refers to a “particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group”.

Originally derived from sociologist writing in the 1990s, “its usage appears to have first been adopted by indigenous peoples of nations tainted by histories of colonisation, such as Canada, Australia and the United States”, says The Tablet.

What’s wrong with it?

It’s often fine to take on aspects of another culture, argues Quartz writer Jenni Avins, whether it’s putting on espadrilles or making coffee with an Italian espresso machine. Simply getting ready in the morning is a “daily act of cultural appropriation and I’m not the least bit sorry about it”, she says.

The problem arises when somebody takes something from another less dominant culture in a way that members of that culture find undesirable and offensive. The point is that the more marginalised group doesn’t get a say, while their heritage is deployed by someone in a position of greater privilege – for fun or fashion, perhaps, and out of a place of ignorance rather than knowledge of that culture.

Wearing espadrilles to work is therefore different from wearing a sombrero to a Halloween party or sending a series of white models down the catwalk wearing their hair in cornrows.

As Dr Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations tells EverydayFeminism, “You are pretending to be a race that you are not and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so.”

Can it work the other way around?

Yes, it can and does – but usually in a different way. Often a more marginalised culture will adopt aspects of the stronger in order to fit in, not stand out. Black women, for example, frequently report they feel unable to leave their hair in its natural state. The BBC cites cases of women being told by employers it looks “unprofessional”. Some say they must spend time and money to make it more like “white hair”, HuffPost reports.

Again, it comes down to an imbalance in power. The black women in this example are not adopting elements of another culture for fun or even necessarily out of choice, but in order to avoid discrimination by the more dominant group. Again, it all comes down to cultural power, historic and modern.

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