Erin Whidden: My Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation in America

Cultural appropriation is defined as the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture, often leading to the original meaning of these cultural elements to be lost or distorted. I think too many people today confuse this term with “assimilation”. America has long been a melting pot, which is defined as a place where a variety of races, cultures, or individuals assimilate into a cohesive whole. That means that in places such as America, cultural customs and traditions will often be adopted and shared by Americans regardless of their race or background.


The reason I’m talking about this today isbecause of an experience I had earlier this week that I have also had multiple times in the past,especially since the rise of “Black Lives Matter”. In the explore feed of my Instagram page, I stumbled across a post that was made by what claims to be a “black empowerment page”. I have no issue with empowerment pages of any sort…until they become hypocritical and condone disrespectful or degrading content towards/ treatment of other groups as a means of uplifting their own group. I am going to leave the page that posted this unnamed, but the post itself was a collection of four pictures of black women, all with their hair in braids, along with the caption, “Only black girls can rock braids #sorrynotsorry”.

Being that I am in the habit of voicing my opinion on such topics, I decided to point out the hypocrisy of such a post. I said:

“Wow. I love how pages like this are all about “ending racism”, yet they turn around and do exactly what preach against. That’s incredibly hypocritical. Besides that, who really takes the time to worry about what someone else is doing with their own hair? If I want to wear French braids, or Dutch braids, or regular braids, the I’m gonna do so, and if that hurts your feelings, that’s not my problem. People are starving in the streets, children are dying of cancer, but here we are complaining about a HAIRSTYLE. How petty. What a slap to the face of all your predecessors who were beaten to death and lynched just for eating in a white restaurant.”

As I’m sure you can imagine, this statement evoked many angry responses. I was immediately told, “You are hurt and your feelings have been dismissed”, as well as many other comments about how my opinion was irrelevant because I was making comments on a “black page”, and I am white. One particularly upset woman, whose comments have been deleted by either the page owner or herself, was particularly nasty and straightforwardly racist, and seemed ok with that. I’m sorry, but last time I checked, segregation ended decades ago, so I am allowed to share my thoughts on an issue on any page that I choose. This one just so happens to call itself a “black page”.

If a page wants to deem itself an “*insert group here* empowerment page”, that’s totally fine by me. However, like I mentioned earlier in this article (or whatever you wanna call it), I do have a problem with it when the posts/ messages conveyed begin to push the idea that said group is somehow better than another group or groups, and that’s what this page was doing by making such a post. You can empower yourself and others without becoming conceited or putting others down.

Anyway, to get on with the real point here, the debate I had got me to thinking about where we draw the line between “cultural appropriation” and “assimilation” in this country today. I know the topic of hair is not all that interesting, but I find it incredibly ridiculous that multiple people could actually be offended over another person’s hair. Hair braiding dates back at least 5000 years and has been a part of many cultures across the globe…not just the continent of Africa. So to say that braids of any kind are exclusively African, and therefor “appropriating” African culture is even more ridiculous. If any person of any background wants to wear their hair a certain way, then they should be able to without being told that they are “not allowed” or “racist” for doing so.

I can only imagine the outcry if the roles were reversed. It’s like a Scottish-American saying, “You aren’t allowed to wear plaid because it comes from the Scottish tartan patterns, and you might be appropriating my clan’s tartan pattern. And don’t play or watch golf or eat shortbread cookies, either. That’s MINE.” That just seems very childish to me, even being that my heritage is more Scottish and Scots-Irish than anything else. This is America. America was founded on many different cultures and ethnic groups. Looking at America’s history, I really don’t think it would have been possible for people not to assimilate- this country’s success is due largely in part to the assimilation of so many cultures.

It would be one thing if someone who was not a Hopi Indian walked around in traditional Hopi clothing and hairstyles all the time, or if somebody pulled a Rachel Dolezal, but in my opinion it is not offensive for people in a melting pot nation to adopt aspects of various cultures, or for cultural staples to be used in the fashion industry or pop culture. America would not be America without the sharing and assimilation of cultures. While I find it important to celebrate, appreciate and respect other cultures and heritages, as well as your own, at the end of the day we are all Americans and should recognize the value of living in a country that allows people of every background to live freely and equally.