Appropriation. It’s a dirty word these days, mainly because people don’t really understand what it is. “There they are, these snowflake liberals,” naysayers sniff, “calling everything appropriation.” But what is appropriation really? And why is it relevant?
To answer this, we have to go all the way back to the ancient days of colonization.
In the 15th century, Europe began what was called “the Age of Discovery.” During this period, European powers rushed around the globe, trying to “discover” untouched lands with natural resources they could co-opt for their own countries.
Unfortunately, all of these “untouched” lands already had occupants, so the varied European powers used a very insidious strategy. They would make the people they colonized lose pride in their culture by brainwashing them into thinking that their cultures were the best.
In essence, they would make the people they conquered lose their culture.
A great example of this is the British Invasion of India. Even after the British invaded Delhi in 1803, the Indians continued to struggle. So the British decided to win once and for all by destroying India’s native confidence in order “to create a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in morals, in opinions and in intellect.”
The ploy worked, and the British remained comfortably in India, looting the country of its jewels and natural resources until the British Raj was dissolved in 1947. This story is repeated all across the world from America to Africa to Australia, and it led to generations of non-European peoples assimilating into European culture while Europeans robbed said countries of their wealth, precious resources, and art.
So what is cultural appropriation? Plainly put, cultural appropriation is borrowing that “reinforces historically exploitative relationships or deprives… countries of opportunities to control or benefit from their cultural material.”
What does this have to do with Kim Kardashian, you ask?
Well, this month, Kim K began posting pictures of herself wearing what she termed “Bo Derek braids.” The hairdo was for a beach photoshoot she’d done in honor of the ’70s movie star, who is often credited with popularizing the look.
There was only one problem, however – braids, particularly those style of braids have been in existence long before Bo Derek ever ran slow-mo across a California beach. They are, in fact, a popular West African hairdo typically associated with the nomadic Fulani tribe. They are also typically looked down upon until white women wear them.
As singer K Michelle explains:
For ages Black women have been taught by society that our image isn’t good enough for mainstream or that we need to make changes… The older I got I started to see that women of other ethnicities were being accepted for and African American women were told no 2 big asses, cornrolls, long pointy finger nails… and other cultural aesthetics.
fired for wearing their natural hair
For people still struggling to see how all this is relevant, imagine if black people stole the Crown Jewels of the British monarchy and then said that not only was it theirs, they’d created it in the first place. This is obviously a ridiculous comparison, but still – cultural appropriation erases the cultural legacy of a people and replaces it with a different narrative.
That’s why people are mad at Kim K. Yes, cultures exchange ideas all the time – that is the nature of human interaction. It only becomes a problem when said exchange is exploitative, as in the case of Kim K.