Where's My Power?: On Navigating the Boundaries of Appropriation as a Black Woman

By Altheria Gaston

I was recently on vacation in Mexico where I purchased two dresses that I had long desired. The particular dress I found is known as a China Poblana dress. I was inspired by the brilliant Mexican artist and feminist icon Frida Kahlo, whose dresses were vibrant, elegant, and culturally-inspired. Her dresses and flowered headdresses were nothing short of phenomenal. In fact, Kahlo was Beyonce’s muse for her 2014 Halloween costume. When I purchased the dresses at the outdoor market in Cholula, I couldn’t contain my excitement.

But once I arrived back in the US, I had second thoughts about wearing the dresses I bought. I wondered if I, a Black woman, could be accused (and guilty) of appropriating the culture of Mexican women. The last thing I want to do is to offend my Mexican-American friends and Mexican-American women in general. As women of color, we are waging the same war against the capitalistic imperialism that makes appropriation possible. With unstable demarcations between the oppressed and oppressors and with privilege being a matter of context, I questioned whether, I, too, could appropriate from a group of which I felt a part—women of color.

Cultural appropriation is usually a claim made by oppressed peoples against the dominant or colonizing group when the more powerful group adopts, without consent, the practices of an oppressed group. People of color have been historically appropriated and commodified by Europeans who have viewed people from the Western and Southern hemispheres, as well as indigenous North Americans, as “exotic” others. Their fascination was not one that regarded these cultures as people with whom they shared a common humanity but as objects to be subverted, controlled, and used for pleasure. This subjugation of people of color laid the foundation for dominant groups to usurp the cultural practices of people of color and appropriate these practices for their own benefit.

One example of both cultural appropriation and commodification is rock-and-roll music, a musical genre dominated by whites but originated from the blues and jazz created by Black artists. White musicians co-opted these Black musical styles and turned their Black-derived music into a commodity that led to fame and wealth. As is often the case with cultural appropriation, whites took something that was “ethnic” and made it mainstream. This is the defining quality of cultural appropriation—using white privilege and power to make “legitimate” the cultural practices and traditions of people of color.

The accusation of cultural appropriation is not without its critics. With the prevalence of transnational travel and the immense diversity within the U.S., some argue that we are being constantly and powerfully influenced by other cultures, blurring the line between appropriation and appreciation, between cultural exchange and cultural theft. Some even contend that a culture cannot “own” a style, symbol, genre of music, art, etc., and, therefore, cannot be appropriated. I have found that there are no easy answers, no universal rules when it comes to deciding whether a particular action is appropriation.

The labeling of a specific act as appropriation, better still, misappropriation, is subjective and situational. For example, if a school is celebrating Native American History Month, it might be acceptable to wear Native American attire after learning about the traditions and history of Native peoples. Still, even when cultural appreciation is demonstrated well, we run the risk that someone might be offended.

As I thought more about whether I’d be committing an act of appropriation by wearing my dress, I asked myself the following questions, keeping in mind that the effects are just as, if not more so, important as the intent.

Is it reductive? Does it reduce the richness of the culture to a narrow image? Often times, acts of cultural appropriation minimize or oversimplify the diversity of a culture by relegating the culture to a few symbols.

Does it ridicule? Does it make a mockery of the culture? Many times, acts of cultural appropriation exaggerate or otherwise distort visual representations of the culture.

Does it desecrate the sanctity of? If the act shows irreverence for the sacred practices and traditions of the culture group, it is a hurtful act of misappropriation.

Is it a mischaracterization of the culture? Is the act a true and accurate representation of the culture or has the true meaning of the act been distorted?

Does it perpetuate stereotypes? If the act caters to common stereotypes of the group, it shouldn’t be done. Period.

Does it dehumanize? In other words, does the act lead to a lower regard for members of the represented culture? If the act could lead to any form of objectification—seeing people more as objects of gratification and pleasure than as human beings worthy of respect—the act might be appropriation.

Who is profiting? Whether through money, fame, social promotion, or other benefits, it’s important to pay attention to whether the wearer/performer/displayer “wins” at the expense of the represented culture.

After seriously considering whether or not to wear my China Poblana dresses, I have decided to wear them. I am not trying to “be Mexican” or to adopt Mexican traditions. I simply want to wear beautiful dresses that show respect to Mexican women and reflect my travel to a historic city. Wearing the dress isn’t reductive, doesn’t ridicule, isn’t sacrilegious, doesn’t mischaracterize Mexican women, doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes, and doesn’t dehumanize. By purchasing the dresses from a local vendor, instead of through online vendors, I am able to invest more directly into the artists who created the dresses.

At the root of questions about acts of cultural appropriation are issues of power. As a Black woman in the U.S. who is privileged in certain ways, I still do not possess the power of whiteness (nor the desire) to legitimize—to move from the margins to mainstream—any “ethnic” cultural practice.

Photo: Splash News Online

Altheria Gaston is a regular contributor at For Harriet. You can find her on Twitter @altheriagaston.

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