Cultural Appropriation 

February 12, 2016

Tolu Sogade


The media seems to constantly throw around the term “cultural appropriation, ” especially in regard to fashion. But what does it actually mean?

Cultural appropriation usually happens when a majority group disregards the traditional and historical aspects of the culture they’re appropriating. Students around campus define it as “portraying people’s culture in a monolithic sense without knowing the history behind the culture” or “wearing something cultural in a way that is offensive.” (1,2) In my definition, cultural appropriation is the exploitation of a minority or less privileged culture by a majority group.

Conversely, cultural appreciation occurs when a majority or minority group understands the significance of another culture and didactically experiences that culture. In fashion, the line between the two the can be difficult to navigate, so we must be cognizant of both appreciation and appropriation in the sartorial decisions we make.  

A particularly prominent form of cultural appropriation consists of taking cultural artifacts with a long history and rendering them as a new fad. Recently, there has been controversy over major magazines, such as Elle and Vogue, deeming cornrows and dashikis “new fashion trends.” Traditions such as cornrows and dashikis have existed in the African American and African community for much longer than western white culture has recognized them as trendy and fashionable. When the majority white community of the western fashion industry advertises these cultural artifacts as a new, it demeans the original cultural significance of that artifact. 

Cornrows originated in Africa and the Caribbean and represent an incredibly rich history and culture. For the Mende tribe in Sierra Leone, cornrows braided in different styles can identify ethnicity, class, kinship, or religion. However, during the Middle Passage of the Triangular Trade, slaveholders shaved the heads of captured slaves, thus stripping them of their identity. The culture of cornrows had to be rebuilt in the Caribbean and North America. In the context of slavery, cornrows were used to make slaves that worked inside the plantation houses look neat and well kempt. Cornrows could also be used to keep hair in place for those that did strenuous work.

To put this problem into context, I interviewed a black female Brown student about her experience with cornrows. She explained:

“I hated wearing cornrows just because it was very far from Eurocentric standards of beauty…it was very far from the standards of beauty where you needed to have long flowing hair that blows in the wind. Cornrows represented blackness in Africa and growing up that was not something that I wanted to portray on myself just because I grew up in predominantly white areas and those [white] beauty standards were being projected onto my own. Growing up and being able to recognize how blackness is beautiful, how our hair is beautiful, and then to be seeing the fashion industry, which is a very white dominated space, [try] to take that and make it a trend just angers me… because these are the same people that were trying to tell me years ago that this wasn’t cute, this wasn’t beautiful and now they’re trying to be like ‘oh cornrows,’ which they like to call ‘mini braids,’ on white models—not even black models—that’s what’s considered beautiful and trendy.” (3)

Similarly, the dashiki, a traditional West African printed shirt, has an equally lengthy history that includes cultural implications for many African cultures. Since the 1960s, African American culture has sought to use the dashiki to reclaim parts of the identity that was stripped away. Despite this long past, Dashikis are often seen on white models in fashion media as a new, stylish printed shirt. 

But what happens when someone within the African American community wears a dashiki? I interviewed an African American student about his view on dashikis and he explained how wearing a dashiki might be “cultural appropriation in some aspects” because “[he] didn’t know it’s cultural significance” He commented that “African American culture and African culture are different” and, perhaps, “dashikis can be a part of black culture” as an attempt for black Americans to “associate [themselves] with African culture.” (1)

In my opinion, African Americans, people of the Caribbean, and Africans all share common geographic origins and, thus, at one point, a common culture. Of course, due to the slave trade and diaspora, different cultures evolved in different places. But when these three cultures exchange artifacts, it is not appropriation, but reclamation of a stolen identity and signals to the understanding of changes in culture that have occurred over time.

Another form of culture appropriation is taking a cultural artifact and wearing it just because it looks fashionable. For example, at Halloween, people commonly appropriate Native American culture by approximating traditional dress from moccasins to headdresses. In instances such as Halloween costumes, the appropriation is so commonplace that it becomes ordinary. In the words of a Brown student—since Halloween is a holiday of jest and horror—by dressing up as a Native American for Halloween, people portray that “Native American culture is either scary or that it it’s a joke.” (2)

In Native American culture, headdresses display bravery and are used during important cultural ceremonies (such as weddings and religious services). Plus, in many Native American tribes, it is an honor to wear these headdresses. And those who wear them are “revered and respected.” Thus, to approximate headdresses, be it during Halloween or Coachella, disrespects Native American cultural values. 

Once we become aware of what cultural appropriation is, how do we avoid it? Brown students explain how it’s “one thing to be engaging in people’s culture… [and another thing to be wearing] it just for fashion, [and] just for people to be like you look cute.” (3)

Personally, I would not feel comfortable speaking on the behalf of all Nigerians if someone were to ask me whether it was appropriate to wear some Nigerian cultural artifact. And I don’t believe it’s the position of any one person from a culture to speak for their entire culture regarding cultural appropriation. However, I believe that the best way to avoid cultural appropriation is through education about cultural artifacts. 

When we learn the significance behind our wardrobes, we can avoid a vast majority of the problematic aspects of cultural appropriation. And avoiding appropriation does not mean that we should never feel like we can participate in a culture, for it can be an enriching experience to learn about the culture in which we are participating. Brown students suggest that people should be “cognizant of what they’re putting on their bodies, what they’re wearing, [and] the implications of what it might mean.” (3)

People can avoid cultural appropriation “by educating themselves about the culture…and the context in which [they’re].” (2) We should all feel free to participate in culture, but should place our emphasis on the active nature of participation. For it is not a one-way experience; both the culture in play and the group interacting with the culture should be able to learn and experience—together. 

1 Kyle Tildon. “Fashion at Brown Interview #1.” Personal interview. 2 Dec. 2015.
2“Fashion at Brown Interview #2.” Personal interview. 3 Dec. 2015. 
3 Ade Osinubi. “Fashion at Brown Interview #3.” Personal interview. 4 Dec. 2015.

Further Reading: