Cornrows and Philosophy: On Cultural Appropriation
Peacocking: To strut about like a peacock; exhibit oneself vainly.
“What the fuck have you done to your head?” yelled the blonde, green-eyed babe over the disco beats we bopped to on the dance floor. I bowed my head so he could touch the rows and rows of tightly woven braids that were now attached to my scalp. Whatever his thoughts on the overall look may have been, it was irrelevant. The conversation was flowing.
Some might have said that by getting cornrows I was show-boating, or “peacocking” as it was put in Neil Strauss’s notorious guide to picking up chicks, The Game. This wasn’t not true. In a decision that was made with utmost rationality and sobriety, I had hoped for nothing more than a few good laughs made at my expense, and to perhaps use my enhanced new look to aid me in some flirtatious banter.
Despite all the extra attention (which I was loving), a confronting question lingered: was I being culturally insensitive? As a fair-haired white girl without a drop of African-American blood in my gene pool, I questioned whether this was the equivalent of dudebros wearing booty shorts, or sporting an Indian headdress at a festival or that group of girls on a night out with matching foreheads glimmering with bindis. Was it not just recently that Taylor Swift was called out for being too white to twerk?
It wasn’t that I was unaware of cultural appropriation; it is something we hear about in the media so often. Every time a white artist wins an award for hip-hop, we ask whether it is justifiable to adopt and capitalise on the cultural identities of those who have been marginalised for the very same characteristics that are being emulated.
For me, the line that separated cultural appropriation from cultural exchange was as fine as a single hair protruding from my tightly woven braids.
Yoga has become a textbook example of taking something from another tradition, branding it as “exotic,” diluting it and then calling it our own. The yoga that the Western world is familiar with is but a shred of its former self. In its pure form, yoga is not just a series of poses and meditation, but is deeply connected to religious practice and the Hindu faith. In 2008, the Take Back Yoga campaign was launched, which was designed not to stop people from practicing yoga, but to get people thinking about its roots.
When Miley Cyrus used African American dancers as props in her film clip We Can’t Stop, it was blatantly clear to the outside audience that the discourse of the film clip was perpetuating stereotypes. This may have been unintentional, but the production company’s inability to acknowledge the historical oppression suffered by the minority ensured that the ideology that Western Anglo culture is dominant was enforced.
There is no greater example of cultural misappropriation than that of the humble burrito, whose origins are not as they seem. This deliciously stuffed corn tortilla is sold in most Mexican chain restaurants and is described by Wikipedia as a type of Mexican food (this is why your teachers told you to never reference Wikipedia). This is all very misleading: the burrito is in fact not Mexican at all – its origins are deeply rooted in the United States of America. But the dish has been transplanted into another culture without any credit or consideration given to its actual background. It becomes easy to see why cultures hold on so tightly to their traditions, ideals and styles, lest it all go the way of the burrito.
The issue with cultural appropriation lies in whether we take into account the history and context of the tradition. The fact is that cornrows are not a fashion-conscious decision for many: they are a look that has stemmed from centuries of tradition. They are a cultural identity.
I was choosing to believe that I was being perceived by the outsider as an “edgy” and “on-trend” individual. Did this make me as ignorant as Miley, or perhaps on par with the Lulu-lemon wearing yoga-cult that has ignored an entire religion? It was only on further examination that I began to explore the cultural significances that were tied to cornrows, or more so, the cultural significances tied to those who hadn’t recently jumped on the bandwagon lead by the likes of the Kardashian Klan. In a brutally honest realisation I knew my delayed sense of cultural understanding, and ignorance of an entire culture’s history, was because I was shrouded by a big thick blanket of white privilege.
There on my holiday in Bali, I was able to catch glimpses of myself in reflective surfaces and see more than just a head full of cornrows. The cornrows took me to a deeper more introspective place than I might have envisioned. I thought I was in it for a laugh, but instead I learned that it was possible to eat a burrito, or practice yoga or wear cornrows without it being a culturally-void version of itself. Cornrows taught me to spend more time in those uncomfortable moments when our privilege is showing, to reflect and linger rather than recoil at the uncomfortableness of it all.
Cover by Don’t Look Now