The Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders

A fine line: ARS Community analyzes cultural appropriation and exchange

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“I woke up like disss,” read the caption under an Instagram picture posted by the corn-row-wearing, pouting, socialite Kylie Jenner in July of 2015. Below the picture, “The Hunger Games” actress Amandla Stenberg began a conversation about cultural appropriation by criticizing Jenner for wearing an African American hairstyle, but not standing up for African American issues. As the conversation got heated, Justin Bieber commented, “Guys leave her alone, we’re all trying to figure it out and she happens to be under a microscope!”

Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as: “The adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.” Two months before the Jenner cornrow whirlwind, Stenberg released a video where she explained her definition of cultural appropriation as, “When a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated… but is deemed as high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.”

Although Stenberg focused on cultural appropriation as a whole in the video, she placed an emphasis on the importance of African-American styled hair to black culture. Essentially, Stenberg said that often white artists try to look edgy or get away with being “high-fashion” by wearing an African American hairstyle, but don’t stand up for African American rights. She also mentioned that the line between appropriation and cultural exchange is blurred.

A couple of weeks ago Justin Bieber posted a picture of himself wearing cornrows which triggered a discussion between my peers and I on the line between cultural appropriation and expressing oneself as an individual. Is it okay for a white person to wear cornrows? Is it okay for an Asian family to open a Mexican food restaurant? Is dressing up as Native American for Halloween okay? Does it matter who is “appropriating”?

While my peers and I conversed about this delicate line between borrowing aspects of other cultures and being offensive, one of my friends (for the purpose of this story, she is white) noticed something. She was wearing worry doll earrings purchased in Mexico by an Ann Richards peer on a trip to visit family. My friend wondered out loud, “Am I being offensive?”

So I set off into the Ann Richards community to see if I could get a consensus on the line between, as Amandla Stenberg said, “cultural appropriation” and “cultural exchange.”

Many members of the Ann Richards community had never heard of the term “cultural appropriation.” Since my goal was to see how the ARS community defined cultural appropriation (sometimes called cultural misappropriation), I showed them the picture of Bieber with cornrows. Then I explained that he’d been criticized in the media for posting the picture because the hairstyle was created and typically worn by African Americans as a staple of their identities. While cultural appropriation is a far larger topic of conversation, Justin Bieber was a good point of entry.

I asked ARS students of all ages if they thought the picture was offensive. If they said yes I asked them why; if they said no I asked them if there was a line between cultural appropriation and being an individual, or cultural exchange.

“The line between that… being your own person and expressing who you are and how you feel and, like, what makes you comfortable, can cross lines. So, it’s a gray area,” sophomore Ryanna Henson said.


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