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Responding to Inequalities: Identifying cultural appropriation and its impacts

Posted at 6:53 PM, Jul 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-23 11:23:07-04

MILWAUKEE — From hair to music and everything in between, Black culture continues to be co-opted by non-Black people.

It's almost a different type of racism; taking on these cultural identities as their own, while at the same time criticizing those who created them.

"Cultural appropriation is defined as adopting elements of a minority culture by members of, typically a more dominant group, without showing respect or given credit or understanding for the other culture,” Dr. Mia Moody-Ramirez, Professor and Chair of Journalism, Public Relations in New Media at Baylor University said. “It can include costumes, ideas, customs, hairstyles, even down to fingernails.”

Dr. Moody-Ramirez also teaches courses in gender, race, and media at Baylor University. She says taking elements of a culture and using it for your own advantage can have tremendous impacts on people.

"The idea that people are making money from this so if the group is impoverished, you can actually take away money that could be going to help empower these groups,” Dr. Moody-Ramirez said.

It can have a mental impact as well.

“We’ve been conditioned to not like our hair,” Kim Williams, a local hair blogger said. “Something is wrong with it. Something is unprofessional, it’s unkempt.”

Williams blog, Kinky Kurly Chic, focuses on hair tips for African American women. She was inspired to start the blog three years ago when she began her own journey into going natural.

“I decided to go natural because I noticed, I was getting a lot of thinning in my hair from chemicals I used to process it so it could be straight,” Williams said. “I already have fine hair and I knew, I wanted to make that move sooner than later.”

The jump was a big one for Williams. She has been programmed, by society and generationally, to look down upon her own natural hairstyles.

“When we rock our natural styles, we’re deemed as ghetto, ratchet,” Williams said. “When the dominant society does it, it’s cool. it’s hip. I work with kids. It was unnerving because I didn’t know what people were going to say. Even though I had my hair very short before, the fact I didn’t have a perm in my hair, it made me very self-conscious.”

She says her mother will still give her warnings if she’s wearing her hair naturally. The manipulation comes in when women who aren’t Black, choose to wear their hair in ways traditionally worn by Black women.

The reactions they get are positive.

“Coming out with the cornrows and calling it something else,” Williams said. “The Bo Derek braids. and everybody is like, oh yeah that’s the newest thing. Kim Kardashian, she called it something else. We’ve been doing it since we were on this earth with the cornrows, so yeah. Someone is constantly doing it and calling it something else.”

Williams says there is functionality to the styles of hair Black women choose. When non-Black women choose those styles out of popularity or trends, it rubs her the wrong way.

“Our hair is not as oily,” Williams said. “We need more to moisturize. Wearing locks is an easy way to keep the hair together. It works in that way. Not just because it’s cool.”

Since she went natural, Williams has long past her concerns about how people would view her. In fact, she’s gone in a completely other direction now; she feels more empowered than ever before.

“I love it,” Williams said. “I love my hair. I’m ok if I have no hair, short hair, medium hair, long hair. It’s just hair and it grows. Now, Black women are really embracing their hair. It’s become a movement. When little kids see you, as a woman, rocking your natural hair they feel pride about themselves. Everybody feels good to see the different varieties, styles, textures that go with it. It makes us feel good as people.”

Williams says, an acknowledgement and research would go a long way in other cultures copying Black hairstyles. In that way, it wouldn’t feel exploitative.

In the history of music, Black artists have long been exploited. In soul, jazz, R&B, white artists or record labels have often taken advantage of the artists. Today, hip hop music has become the new iteration of pop music. Rappers like Jay-Z and Kanye West are billionaires.

Local musician Tim Ricketts, who plays in the band Cigarette Break, thinks appropriation isn’t all bad in the music industry.

“We know the Blues comes from African polyrhythms comprised of two and four [beats],” Ricketts said. “That went from church, to the Blues and now artists around the world going to expensive colleges to learn what was rooted in Black culture.”

When Ricketts is able to perform live, he says his band used to play covers from popular white artists with their own band’s flair.

“I can say now more than ever, right now, our two cultures are meeting,” Ricketts said. “We’ll do Justin Timberlake, Christina Milian, Adele because we know the face we’re playing for. Once we play that music for that audience, we can put that soul and vibe into those songs and we’re into Frankie Beverly and Maze. Now you realize, everyone in the room, wanted to hear that anyway. We had to play those other songs to break the ice.”

The problem lies in people profiting off of Black creations without credit.

“When it comes to music, when you’re directly taking their words or sampling, you should give them credit for it,” Ricketts said. “There’s a saying, there’s no such thing as free lunch. If you’re taking something from them, pay them for it. If you want to study them, actually go to them. Include them.”

It can feel like a fine line between appropriating or appreciating but Dr. Moody-Ramirez says there’s a quick question to ask yourself.

“Think about if you dress in that way and then you visit someone's home, who's from that culture,” Dr. Moody-Ramirez said. “Would they be offended? If your answer is yes, then that means that you probably shouldn't dress in that manner. Another way to show appreciation is actually doing research and trying to learn more about that culture. So that you actually know the meaning behind it and usually, in learning more behind the culture, you will learn.”

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