Cultural Appropriation OR Assimilation

Contributor: Dinan Saeed (@dinan249)

Another month and another accusation of cultural appropriation by a celebrity or influencer. We see this happen time and time again: a white female celebrity does her hair in box braids and what typically follows is people calling her out on social media. Then either one of two things: a subsequent half-hearted apology (often claiming ignorance), or a total denial of wrongdoing. Her fans and critics alike launch into a debate on whether this is appropriation or appreciation of black culture. Sound familiar?
An argument oftentimes voiced is that black women often wear wigs and weaves, and straighten their hair – mimicking Eurocentric hair and beauty ideals. So, what is the big deal if a white woman mimics Afrocentric hair trends? To really understand why these two are not the same, we need to differentiate between 'assimilation' and 'appropriation.'
Assimilation is "the process by which a minority group is gradually forced to lose cultural elements in order to adapt to the customs of the dominant culture or ethnic majority". This is typically done as a necessary means for political, social and economic survival of those in a minority group. Assimilation usually occurs because minority groups have been conditioned over an extended period of time to view their cultures as innately primitive or inferior to the dominant culture. Quite often, those who are unwilling to conform are often mocked or worse still, ostracized.
Many black women straighten their natural hair and black men remove their dreadlocks in order to conform in an environment where they are in the minority group. They often feel that it is part of what it takes to look 'professional' for job interviews and to achieve professional success. Even for those who are enlightened enough to see that these are all standards that are rooted in the historical persecution of black people and their culture, and those with a great sense of pride in their culture, there is still often the need to assimilate for survival and for a higher chance of success. This is to appease the majority and to conform to the dominant culture, as the majority maintains a position of authority and leadership in all socio-economic structures.
Appropriation is "the adopting of elements of one culture by members of another; typically, the more dominant culture adopting the elements of minority cultures". This often happens against the wishes of those representing the culture, and is usually out of context with the original culture. Examples of appropriation can include tanning the skin, lip fillers (and other similar surgical and cosmetic enhancements), wearing box braids and wearing dashikis to make a fashion statement. Cultural appropriation often distorts and reduces the original cultural significance. While black culture is becoming more intriguing for other races, it is neither fair nor appropriate for people outside of this culture to choose what they deem the positive elements of blackness, and to hold these as theirs when they will never live the full black experience and are exempt from the struggles that come with it.

It is important to understand that when black people get frustrated that non-black people are box-braiding their hair, it's not just about the hairstyle, it is also about the fact that these hairstyles are associated with negative stereotypes when black people wear them, while non-black people get complimented for them. Appreciating a culture is one thing and that is welcome, but appropriation can be damaging. The danger of cultural appropriation lies in the fact that doing so strips away cultural meanings. Appropriating certain elements of someone else's culture in a superficial manner while continuing to shame them when they embrace their own culture is deeply destructive. Culture is more than just aesthetics.