Not Yo Culture

Kylie Jenner poses for a selfie in cornrows. Shortly thereafter, she will be called out on this by Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg.

Hated YouTuber of the moment Nicole Arbour (see recent rage-bait video ‘Dear Fat People’–or rather, don’t) has been generous enough to bring us another highly controversial video addressed to another group of marginalized individuals: black people.

This time, Arbour attacks the concept of cultural appropriation, misdefining and trivializing it and advocating cultural ‘sharing’ because she sees nothing wrong with trying out bits and pieces of other people’s cultures that she thinks are cool.

The video features jump shots of the barely-speaking token black friend she brought in to ‘qualify’ her opinions, mockery of her own white girl-ness and a somewhat heartfelt speech about how black people are still discriminated against to this day.

There’s no sense in inviting anyone to watch the video and rack up views for her perhaps well intended but poorly executed word vomit, but the video serves as a good example of the misunderstandings that exist about cultural appropriation. 

A fashion spread using Native American imagery as accessories.

Cultural appropriation is a slippery slope, and it’s criss-crossed with many fine lines. It’s somewhat broadly defined as an instance in which a member of one culture adopts an element of another culture in a negative way. The controversy of adopting other people’s culture comes from the power dynamics of racism, and is especially bad when it involves white perpetrators, because they instigate most of the oppression against other ‘minority’ cultures.

The basic gist is, a) don’t steal things from people’s cultures without being aware of their cultural, religious or historical significance and b) don’t steal things from people’s cultures simply because you take a passing fancy in them and want to use them to seem quirky/exotic/cool/etc.

So what is it, specifically?

Cultural appropriation is wearing Native American accessories or costume–when you’re not Native American (and no, being 1 percent Cherokee on your grandmother’s side doesn’t count). It can’t be passed off as a symbol of appreciation or respect for a specific tribe, as the costumes are usually grossly inaccurate, sexualized or made fashionable. And, of course, there’s that little issue with settlers killing/raping/pillaging/upending Native American lifestyles.

Cultural appropriation is Kylie Jenner flaunting cornrows in an Instagram selfie captioned ‘I woke up like disss.’ She very obviously didn’t wake up with hair like that, as so many black women actually do each day. Of course, when a black person has cornrows, it is considered ugly, unprofessional, or dirty. When light-skinned Jenner tries it out for a day, braids are suddenly cute, edgy, and urban.

Perhaps less obvious, but equally important, as they are the building blocks of the issue, are the small-level hypocrisies we’ve all become accustomed to.

Katy Perry performing costumed as a geisha.

It’s white people forking over money to get tan skin-but not too tan, because then someone might think you’re Mexican (gross). It’s people making fun of Hispanic or Middle Eastern girls’ bushy eyebrows and then worshipping bushy eyebrows as on fleek after white supermodel Cara Delevingne made ‘bold brows’ trendy. It’s Katy Perry dressing as a geisha for a performance; it’s Gwen Stefani parading around a silent Harajuku girl posse and using their unique style to brand herself and her products.

It’s white people gushing about how they love some small aspect of someone’s culture, like their hair, their religious imagery or their clothes, and then feeling entitled to use it for themselves.

In her video Nicole Arbour bats her big blue eyes and asks, “Why don’t we all just enjoy whatever the f*** we want from every culture?”

Gwen Stefani performs with her posse of Japanese Harajuku Girls.

Well, Nicole, because it’s mean. Because other people’s cultures are rarely represented and when they are, they’re not represented fairly, accurately or thoroughly. Because some people get judged or persecuted for being proud of their culture and especially in a melting pot like America, it’s something they should be allowed to keep. Because it’s not fair that when white people do something it’s okay, and when you’re any other color, it’s not. Because it strengthens racism, disrespects people, and cheapens and erases important aspects of their culture.

Again, cultural appropriation is a tricky terrain to navigate through and even those with good intentions might make a mistake here and there, but it’s still important to carefully think about what implications your actions hold.

Cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation are two different things–one is sharing and one is stealing. The difference is the number of people with something to gain.



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