I Am Not Your Costume
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, cultural appropriation is “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” For example, cultural appropriation is that time your best friend dressed up as a Native American war chief for Halloween – and then again for a football game. Cultural appropriation is when millions of white Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo with sombreros and tacos but chant “Build the wall!” on May 6. Cultural appropriation is when a suburban white kid with identity issues thinks listening to rap music and wearing certain clothes makes him “hard”. It is the act of stealing traditions from other races and bastardizing them for quick profit, a cheap laugh, or both, and it is a form of colonization.
Many non-black celebrities partake in the appropriation of African American culture as a means to further their career, especially in the music business. From Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the black woman who invented rock and roll, only for the world to sing Elvis Presley’s praises, to today when all a white artist needs to succeed is an inkling of “soul” or “swag” to be exalted above black singers and rappers. White people have used the cultural contributions and the intellectual property of African Americans to get ahead for decades. Just ask Nathan “Nearest” Green or Henrietta Lacks.
Not only is black song, dance, intellect, and speech coveted, but the black “look” appears on non-black bodies as well. To put it bluntly, the women of the Kardashian family are ridiculous caricatures of what the rest of the world thinks black women look like. Cornrows, flashy jewelry, disproportionately wide hips and behind, full lips, high cheekbones – the latter four achieved by medical cosmetics – all make up their “aesthetic”. As 2018 came to a close, a Swedish Instagram model came under fire for posing as black to gain followers. The model claimed that her bronze skin was the result of a sun tan, but it didn’t negate the alterations of her natural face and body or the hairstyles – such as the high ponytails and wigs with tightly coiled curly hair – she chose to wear.
Being of African descent and possessing the phenotypes that come with it is not a costume, a look, a style, or an aesthetic. Being any ethnicity other than white is not a look, style, or aesthetic. Cultural appropriation is harmful because while appropriators can take off their “costume” at any moment and enjoy the privileges of being their own race, African Americans, for example, have yet to escape persecution for being who they naturally are. It doesn’t matter how straight a person makes their hair or how standard they make their speech. It doesn’t matter how light a person bleaches their skin or if they wear colored contacts. If a person is of color, they can never stop being of color. For this reason, cultural appropriation will never be welcome or tolerated in a world where racism and prejudice exists.