Amandla Stenberg (born 1998) is an American actress best known for her roles in the Hunger Games movie series. Here, from an article in the
Authoritarian Left Daily Huffington Post, is a video in which Stenberg complains about the wearing of cornrows by non-blacks as a form of cultural appropriation. The PuffHo piece has the title below; click on the screenshot to go to the article.
Jenner should watch this video and think twice before she wears cornrows again.
So proclaims a privileged white editor at PuffHo. Here’s the video, called “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows”. (Note Stenberg’s own hairstyle.)
I’ve always thought that this kind of complaint is misguided, for—as in the example of cornrows—the “appropriation” is not in any sense a denigration of black culture, but a sign of admiration for a hairstyle that—let us recognize it—originated in Africa. As they say, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
In the video, Ms. Stenberg definescultural appropriation, which apparently applies to this hairstyle, like this:
“Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalization or stereotypes when originated, but is deemed as high fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they are partaking in.”
Note that this differs from others’ definitions of cultural appropriation, which don’t involve “racist generalizations or stereotypes,” but “stealing” from oppressed cultures without paying tribute from them, like eating Chinese food without some kind of mental genuflection.
Now I’m not sure whether cornrows were once the subject of racist generalizations or stereotypes, though there has been controversy about banning that hairstyle from the workplace, but let us also grant that some people who weren’t black made fun of that hairstyle in the past. I could then understand why some blacks would be miffed if that hairstyle was originally subject to racist taunts, but then was later adopted by non-blacks. (The earliest example I remember is Bo Derek in “10”.) In such cases, what do you do? I would think that the proper response would not be to tell white people to stop wearing cornrows, but to tell white people, “Look, if this hairstyle is so ugly, why are you people wearing it?” Or, “You do know that that hairstyle was once made fun of, right?”
And I can understand bad feelings if, for example, white people took over rap and hip-hop, musical forms originated by blacks, and then made tons of money while black artists made nothing. But that isn’t the case. Yes, we have Eminem and Iggy Azalea, but there are plenty of rappers and hip hop artists who are black, rich, and successful.
Further, if people incorporate cultural borrowing along with invidious stereotypes (Stenberg shows Katy Perry with a watermelon fan, though I’d need to watch that whole video to see the context), then yes, that’s offensive and inappropriate.
Finally, I do agree with Stenberg that if you’ve become successful using a trope from another culture, particularly one that’s considered oppressed, you’d do well to recognize and pay homage to your roots. When jazz began, it was almost entirely played and enjoyed by blacks, who developed the style, but became so attractive that it was adopted, played by, and enjoyed by many whites; these include Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Django Reinhardt, and so on. Is that cultural appropriation? Not according to Stenberg’s definition, as jazz was rarely, to my mind, subject to much racial denigration. For a while it stayed within the black community, but quickly became widely popular in both Europe and the U.S. It was just too good! And even if a few whites in the 1920s and 30s made fun of early jazz as “black people’s music,” is it now and forever cultural appropriation for them to enjoy it these days? I don’t think so. Jazz is now accepted as a musical form that anyone can enjoy.
In fact, many of the white musicians who first played jazz were fighters for black equality. Benny Goodman, for instance, was criticized for incorporating black musicians into his bands and quintets. He ignored the criticism. It seems to me that if you take a behavior, food, or style from one community, it makes you less likely to demonize that community, and that’s what happened with jazz. Granted, white people’s love of jazz in the 1930s and 1940s didn’t immediately lead to integration: one remembers the odious spectacle of black musicians playing for all-white audiences in Harlem’s Cotton Club.
But if the popularity of jazz isn’t cultural appropriation, why is it so for rap and hip hop? Can’t we just take those bits of culture we like, appreciate their sources, and make them part of our culture? Isn’t that the real melting pot we all favor in America?
I’ve tried hard to appreciate what points Stenberg is trying to make, and can sort of understand why people like her get offended, but in the end I think that offense is a losing battle. Cultural appropriation is not racism or oppression; it seems to me it’s the opposite. But by all means comment below if you feel differently.
ADDENDUM: In Food and Wine magazine, cultural icon Lena Dunham has just endorsed the Oberlin Kerfuffle about banh mi, “disrepectfully” cooked sushi rice, and improper General Tso’s chicken being unacceptable and culturally appropriated foods served in the school cafeteria (Dunham went to Oberlin):
That’s not “right on” at all; it’s ridiculous. Such are the heroes of the young folk.