Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation?

Kharma Kelley
18 min readMar 23, 2021


Spoiler Alert: It’s not that clear-cut. Put your pitchfork down for a sec.

So, I was up super early today, and as I was making my coffee and oatmeal when I started to think about all the recent events that have occurred within the realms of social media regarding cultural appropriation. A couple of months ago, the internet exploded with the video release of Cardi B’s & Megan Thee Stallion’s single, WAP. Though the explosion came from the sheer existence of the racy bop video in itself, another topic that spun up was the polarization of a cameo in the video featuring Kylie Jenner. Kylie Jenner has been accused multiple times of being a “culture vulture”, which is a term given to folks who (whether intentionally or unintentionally) exploit and profit from the style, language, and way of life of another(often marginalized) group of people.

In that following week after, a white couple on Tik Tok did a cringey take on using AAVE (African American Vernacular English) with a weird Southern/imitation Blaccent and Black Twitter flipped very righteous tables over it. It was taken down and the couple apologized shortly after.

Then, shortly after that, pop singer, Adele posted a photo of her in Bantu Knots, wearing a bikini with a Jamaican flag in honor of Notting Hill Carnival, one of the world’s largest celebrations of Caribbean culture. The question many ask is either, “What’s the big deal?” or “Why does White America/UK keep doing this?” I would like to dive into both of these questions in this blog post because both of these are within the realm of an ongoing discussion of cultural appropriation.

What is Cultural appropriation? The basic definition I use is the action of using various aspects of a culture (a way of life)not of your own and exploiting it for some form of value. That value can be monetary, influence, social clout, or some other method of capital. My earliest understanding of cultural appropriation (before it has a word for it) was when I was a preteen watching the movie “10” with my mother. I remember her talking about how upset Black people were when Bo Derek wore the Fulani-style braids as a means to be “Bohemian” and “beautiful”. Bo Derek got lots of praise and attention from White America for sporting such an “ethnic” style of hair. While in other news, at the very same time, Black women wearing that protective style were often denied employment, treated unfairly, and harassed for wearing their hair in such a manner. What’s even more infuriating is In 1980, People magazine actually wrote Derek was responsible for making the style a “cross-cultural craze.” Imagine that. A hairstyle that has been around for years and part of the Fula culture was suddenly blasted into white acceptance by none other than a white woman wearing it. There’s a lot to unpack there but I need to save it for later. Don’t worry, it’ll make sense as we work through this blog.

So, where is the line between appreciating a culture and stealing it? It’s a nuanced issue for sure, so let’s preface this discussion with an understanding that:

  1. There is no straight line between either side and like most hard topics, there are shades of gray between that lineup. We could just stick to some clear-cut areas, but then again, we would be approaching this topic far too simplistically and leaving out areas where all of us need to work out for ourselves.
  2. So, with that said, let’s be 100% about this and agree that we are going into this with an understanding that we may not have all the answers right now. Nor should we. Because if we were able to figure this shit out in a blog or Twitter post, we would’ve done so by now I imagine.
  3. There are multiple branches of topics that will stem from this, because well like I said (see #1). I won’t get in too deep on the branches, but I want to acknowledge them to show how complicated this topic can be. Sometimes seeing is believing.
Mural of various culture representation and vultures stealing. A sign says “Beware of Culture Vultures”

Let’s just say, we are bringing perspectives to light so people have data to do the additional work (i.e rationalization) themselves. Because I will tell you, understanding cultural appropriation has a lot to do with you internally. It’s how you acknowledge and understand privilege and oppression. It’s how knowledgeable you are regarding the history of colonization, white supremacy, and capitalism. It’s how you see (or don’t see) the patterns of marginalized communities only having their culture seen and “appreciated” when white culture decides to adopt it, often as a trend. If you haven’t done the work around the understanding that, then this discussion may be even more difficult for you. All I can say is to stick with it and don’t dismiss it as this being “blown outta proportion.” We only tend to say shit like that when we don’t feel its significance personally. Try to push past that for a minute or else you’ll never grow, therefore wasting your time; the one thing no one can ever replace.

Alright, so let’s dive in.

The best analogy I’ve heard used around cultural appropriation is treating a community’s culture like a nice outfit or jacket you can show off and take off whenever you feel like it. When you put it in those terms, it can make a lot of sense why people get upset and exhausted over their culture being used as an accessory. Especially when so much of non-White culture is othered and given less respect and acknowledgment, except when the White majority decides to take notice and center themselves in it.

We need to remember this: You can respect or appreciate a culture without actively partaking in the superficial pieces of it. In fact, the irony is that respect is showing that there’s more to a community’s culture than just the fun, trendy aspects of it and that no matter when white culture decides its trendiness definitely doesn’t change its value to that community — It is valuable whether white culture thinks it is or not. I assume some of this can be a lack of empathy, so here’s the healthy part of this type of respect. When you learn, read, understand the history of a culture, appreciation is actively defending its preservation. I’ll use a personal example. In a college camp, I met a girl who was from the Kickapoo Nation. I knew nothing of the tribe, its language, or way of life in our times. After a summer being with her, having her read me tales in her native language, trying foods her family made, I had a deep appreciation for the Kickapoo culture. I didn’t go out and buy the jewelry style and ceremonial clothing. That’s superficial shit. What happened is when I saw a white girl years later wearing a headdress for a costume, I told her about herself. Why? Because knowing the culture of Jolene’s people, I know it was disrespectful. Moreover, I, as a Black woman can be totally empathetic with seeing the style, language, and way of life on the face of the colonizer. It’s triggering for me, so I can only imagine what it’s like for others.

So one thing that comes up is, “Well, what if those people are selling their clothing and jewelry and recipes? Are you saying I can’t buy them?” So, let’s talk about this part. Once again, the answers aren’t one size fits all, so I will say that this is completely up to the communities to decide on this. There’s a piece of this discussion that needs to dive into equity, and that there is value in purchasing items from that community because they have made it available and when buying from them, the money is given to that community. What gets kinda nasty is buying cultural items that are not sold by the communities behind that culture. I personally feel it is appropriation by proxy because the vendor you bought from is likely exploiting for their own gain and you’re paying them instead of the communities behind that culture. For this topic, my sincere advice is to follow the money. I see so many people hop on the “Buy Local” bandwagon, I’d like to see people take it to the next level and do the homework on cultural items as well.

Another thing that needs to be addressed in this topic is the great adage that no one likes to hear: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Entitlement is a mofo, I know. So, let’s take that above branch of conversation from above and compound that into an example. Let’s say you see that African print headwraps are steadily a trend. You want one, so you take the advice above and locate a Black business that sells these head wraps, so you give your money to support the community behind the culture of these gorgeous headwraps. You may feel this entitles you to wear the garb because you contributed to the community. If so, let’s talk about the dangers of this type of thinking. Let’s go back to the other area around what it means to appreciate and respect a culture. First, you need to ask yourself a very basic question: Why do you want to wear an African print headwrap?

You really need to ask this. Is it because you think it’s pretty? Is it because you always wanted to wear one, but didn’t find it acceptable until now (maybe because you saw one of your celebrities or friends wear one and didn’t get any flak for it)?

There may be many answers you have, but let’s just go with those two reasons and work that out:

You think it’s pretty and you want to wear it because you like something about the style.

Though you may feel it’s attractive and stylish and even just like the patterns and colors, keep in mind that this is the most simple, shallow cultural value of the headwrap. This answer has nothing to do with an appreciation of the culture itself, only your own centered desire to buy it cause it’s “pretty” The respect occurs much deeper than that. Like the understanding of the history of African head wraps in various African tribes and how they are used to mean different things. In some cultures how the head wrap is worn can tell if a woman is married or widowed, young or old. Some use it with spiritual significance, while others are given as a sign of respect. For example, In Zulu culture, a woman is expected to cover her head when she visits or is in the presence of her in-laws to show respect. You should also know of the history of head wraps in the colonized US and how a symbol of pride and spiritual culture of covering the hair was morphed into a symbol of the oppression of Black enslaved women. How Black women’s hair was treated as unsightly, “nappy” and ugly, which needed (often by law) to be covered.

In knowing that, does it still feel “pretty” for you, who often may be the face of the colonizer who invokes this trauma? This hits me hard, personally as a Black woman who even now sees discrimination about my hair and how I wear it. I’ll be frank and I can only speak to my emotions but know this. There are many times I would like to rock my African print head wrap at work as a way to show respect for my ancestors and my lost culture, but there’s the fear of being treated or seen as “unprofessional” at work. So, the fact that you just want to wear the headwrap because it’s “pretty” really speaks to your privilege and pisses me all the way off.

Okay, so the other answer: You always wanted to wear one but didn’t find it acceptable until now.

If that’s the case, you need to ask yourself: What changed around me or within me that tells me I can wear it now?

It’s it a trend now where you see so many women wear them? Did you see a non-Black woman wear it and feel because she wore it, it’s deemed okay to finally wear it?

I’m going to stop there because these questions alone are already pretty telling around this line of thinking. So let’s dive into this.

Let’s go back to that analogy about wearing someone’s culture like a nice outfit you can take off. This is a clear path to that way of thinking. We all know trends come and go, and wearing something just because it’s a fad, gives a very distinct signal to these communities that aspects of who they are are just a passing fancy that doesn’t require any deep level of understanding. Also, we can cherry-pick parts of a community’s culture and show it off without having to understand or care about all of it — or that community for that matter.

If you didn’t feel comfortable or interested in wearing it before, you really need to ask yourself: Why now?

As a Black woman, I feel comfortable talking more about the stress and trauma around standards of style and beauty in the US and why cultural appropriation is so draining, disheartening, and ragey to me.

A Black woman’s body suffers a long-standing history of being abused, mistreated, treated as property. Centuries of this treatment and the constant messages that exemplify European beauty as the high standard, whereas Black women are seen as unattractive, unpretty, and/or exotic, has forced us to take a stand and create our own standards of beauty, including love for our natural hair, our round asses, and full lips. We design makeup that works for our myriad of skin tones and clothing that accentuate the attributes that non-Black (and internalized Anti-Black Black) America mocks, demonizes, and yes even hypersexualize. Just look at parodies, images of the past and you’ll see a history of dark skin, curly hair, big lips, and fat asses mocked as comical and unsightly characteristics of Black people (esp. Black womxn). So, when I see people like Bo Derek, Katy Perry, and Kim Kardashian sport Fulani-style braids because it’s trendy and cute, or Kylie Jenner darken her skin and plump her lips and everyone finds them gorgeous and pretty, it’s a slap in the face to me. White supremacy culture doesn’t respect the culture because it doesn’t have to — as long as it’s seen as valuable in some form or fashion, it can take a piece and suddenly make it seen as acceptable, but ONLY when White America uses it. So what we have is a history of the Black woman not being seen as beautiful and their qualities are only seen as pretty when it’s copy/pasted onto a non-Black body. This goes much deeper than the superficial aspects of beauty too — this also factors into the worth of Black women in society. If only certain parts of us are worthy (and not even on our own bodies) then I can only interpret that the message is I as a Black woman am not deemed valuable at all. My whole Black self is not seen as a whole person worthy of respect and love as I am. But, Karen can come along and pick a few attributes and style from either my modern or ancestral culture and all of a sudden not only is she seen as more beautiful, but more valuable and thus more protected. It makes me want to flip tables. I don’t follow the Jenners and Kardashians of the world(I don’t stan celebrities as a rule for living my best life) but from what I have been exposed to, this may have a lot to do with the backlash of Kylie being seen in Black (womxn) spaces. Again, just because you CAN, doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

The problem with cultural appropriation is that for the marginalized communities, they can’t just “take-off” their culture — it’s part of them. It’s part of our identity and how we navigate the world. Those who appropriate can exploit, flaunt and profit from the surface levels of culture without having to care about protecting it, preserving, or even understanding it. That’s very shitty considering many communities suffer from a lack of generational wealth in the US and yet you take a piece of who they are, demonize it when it’s part of them, but elevate it when it’s a part of you. Think about that. Do you want to be part of that?

Often, I see a couple of cop-outs and ridiculous rebuttals of “It’s a hair-do! Get over it! Of all the racial issues out there you jump on someone appropriating a hairstyle?”

Yes, actually.

I would like us all to understand that it is possible to be concerned with more than one item of racial injustice and guess what? Cultural appropriation is one of those items that validly link into racism, oppression, and dominant privilege. The more we cherry-pick what people should and should not care about, the more we lose sight that a lot of this shit intersects and interconnects (as with most oppression). So when I hear those dismissals, I hear someone who is unfamiliar with how all of this ties together. Now, do we need to prioritize what to tackle in this giant shitshow of racial and social injustice? Of course, but keep in mind, we are all not a totalitarian unit all rowing in the same direction. We all have past experiences and occurrences that affect what’s important to us and yes, sometimes events like White America feeling like Elvis invented Rock n’ Roll can make some of us pop off. We’re human and though it’s not the biggest pot on the fire of social justice and racism when events occur, it’s often the hottest pot. It may not be a priority for some, but we’re allowed to call it out and address it. Stop pushing for peace when we should push for justice.

Another rebuttal I see (that happens a lot with braided hairstyles)is that “Black people didn’t invent braids. Many cultures braided their hair and therefore it is ridiculous for people to get in a tizzy because a non-Black decides to sport braids.”

Hmm. Okay. So, yes, I agree that the general style of braids is not exclusive to Black people. It’s true that many cultures wore or still wear their hair in braids. No argument there. Norsemen, Saxons, Indigenous people of America, and many African people wore their hair in a braided style.

However, let’s think about this in the scope of modern times and within the lens of US culture and the key qualifier here, STYLE.

We’ve established that Black people didn’t invent braids, but what we haven’t examined is how braid styles are used and worn in modern culture for many communities. I’m having a hard time researching finding communities other than Black and African diaspora that frequently wear their hair in protective styles such as box braids, Fulani-style cornrows, microbraids, crochet braids, sister locks, twists, and other variations of this style on the regular. So, when I hear that rebuttal, I’m hearing someone who is either honestly missing the point entirely or purposefully being obtuse. Of course, we know Blacks didn’t invent braids. That isn’t the point. The point is that in modern culture, Blacks have consistently worn these styles of braids. Yes, many cultures still wear braids in their hair but again, I don’t see them wearing it in the STYLE that is intrinsically tied to Black culture. Honestly, let’s give each other some credit here. If this was about braided styles that everyone wears like french braids, no one would really bother to say anything. To be frank, most of us damn well know that those aforementioned styles of braiding are an aspect of Black culture, and if it was so acceptable to non-Black America, everyone would be rocking it and Black women wouldn’t be labeled “ghetto” or “rachet” for wearing them. So, as politely as I can say — have several seats if you continue to lean on that rebuttal.

Another branch of this is the understanding that many Black and African diaspora have things to unpack around cultural appropriation here. There are some discussions in feeling that Black Americans are appropriating from native African culture. I will also preface this branch in that, once again, this is indeed a nuanced topic and one that needs its own deep discussion. Like, the well-known fact that Black Americans were descendants of slaves who had their ancestral culture ripped and erased from them over centuries of oppression, colonization, and white is right supremacy culture. My honest, investigative question is: could it be that what some of the various African communities see as appropriation actually be an attempt for these descendants to reclaim some identity they lost?

Now, this isn’t asked to absolve all of Black America and assume no exploitation has taken place. However, it is valid to color this topic with an understanding that Black Americans had to fuse our culture together to make our own. We may need to ask ourselves how can we bridge this gap between our fused culture and the cultures of people part of our lost ancestral roots and educate and elevate each other? and how can we deal with the possible hard understanding that some communities of the African diaspora also may not want their culture fused with anyone else’s (which is still their right)? Black Americans will have to do what we can to tether ourselves to some of the ancient cultures while creating our own based on our generational trauma and history in America. These discussions will have to continue, but what needs to happen is more empathy and appreciation for the histories that help build, destroy and/or define our way of life.

There’s something to be said about a belief that appreciation is merely seen as an act of white culture acknowledging it for something or other. Especially given the history of colonization and capitalism. White supremacy culture typically doesn’t acknowledge or pick up anything from outside its culture unless it could yield some gain; Fiduciary gain. I caution this to everyone, even the members of these marginalized communities who feel that dominant cultures taking aspects of their community and making it visible is a sign of acceptance. You can accept a culture without taking pieces and tying it to you. Why can’t we make cultures visible by elevating the community itself? I challenge you all to think about the “no more about us without us” mantra Black American culture has adopted. Which is the sentiment that without us in the center of our own culture, which includes styles, language, art/literature, then you’re just using the culture as a commodity.

There is another branch of discussion around a fusion of cultures and the concern that being restricted against appropriation will prevent the growth of creativity and merging of cultures. If we prevent every community to only create from their culture then this segregates us and stagnates cultural collaboration.

So, this is another branch of the topic that is really up to every community to decide as this is not a one size fit all answer here. Obviously, there are examples of enlightenment and creativity throughout history where cultures share and fuse to create something very new and different. The easiest example is food because everyone eats and we as humans love to explore different tastes and foods. Cultural exchange around that happens very often. But if we took that example and spread that rationale as a blanket over every community and their language, style, and spirituality, we would be steamrolling all cultures into morphing all of it into something different. Some communities don’t want to change or fuse some parts of their culture. Some may not want to fuse any of it at all. It’s their choice because for many cultures their way of life has been challenged, mocked, and whitewashed over years of oppression and they want to protect and preserve it. I feel that’s totally acceptable because hey, I know what that feels like. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to defend who you are and what helps define you. I find that healthy especially in a society that consistently tries to force you into a square ass peg or be ostracized. The whole “assimilate or die” is a part of White Supremacy culture that opened the door to other cultures being erased, shunned, and stolen mostly for the benefit of the “dolla dolla bills.”

In regards to fusion and collaboration of cultures, the same ideals discussed below applies. How can you collaborate when you don’t respect the nuance and histories of a community’s culture? If you’re creating something new for profit, but not bringing the community along for the ride and in turn elevating them (not just the new shit you built off of them) then you may be going down a path of being a culture vulture. Creating something new comes with taking risks and breaking rules. How will you know what rules to break if you don’t know them? And even if you knew the rules to break, just because you can (and be revered for it) does that mean you should? I don’t have the answer for all of this, but we need to think about this before just pulling from the defense of communities as “they are segregating” and “closed-minded” There’s a lot more to it than that, and if that’s all you take from the anger and backlash of a community being angry at people making something “about us without us”, then you’re missing a huge point.

So, what are we going to do about this? One — we should feel comfortable speaking out, but honestly, this is just one tiny piece. What needs to happen is the level-set understanding that we are dealing with the complexity of HUMANS. And humans have history, and that history has rippled through everything we’ve built and everything we want to build. Without context, and the understanding of oppression, white supremacy culture, and capitalism, we’re not gonna get far.

Also, a reminder that no one is an authority on what communities of color want or need, and communities are local, regional, and globally built. This matters because it’s important to understand that a community’s needs are different based on where they are, the history of that region and their people, and what’s damaging them now.

The minute we try to broad-stroke our approaches and decisions to fit all groups of marginalized folk, that is the minute we failed.



Kharma Kelley

I'm an #indieauthor of #ParanormalRomance & #UrbanFantasy. Love Coaching, dogs & tacos. DEI Advocate and moderator.