Last night’s VMAs drew a lot of attention, for numerous reasons. Whenever there is an awards show, the media focuses on what celebrities are wearing. One celebrity, Miley Cyrus, garnered a lot of attention for wearing what hollywoodlife.com called “amazing blonde dreadlocks!” The music star was praised for wearing a traditionally black hairstyle. Some might ask, what’s the problem? It’s just a hairstyle.
The thing is, dreadlocks aren’t just a hairstyle. They are an important part of black culture, worn traditionally by women of color. Instead of being praised, they are insulted. Just look at what happened to Zendaya when she chose to wear dreadlocks on the Oscars red carpet: A Fashion Police reporter, Guiliana Rancic, said that the young star must smell of “patchouli oil and weed.” When women of color choose to wear their hair in traditional hairstyles, they are shamed, made fun of, and sometimes ejected from groups (workplaces, the military, etc.) When Miley Cyrus chose to wear dreadlocks, she got all the fun of a “funky”, “eclectic” hairstyle without all the insults from the rest of society. That is cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation happens all the damn time. Another example would be when teenagers dress up as native americans for Halloween. They get to put on a costume, without understanding the culture behind it. They do not have to live with the history of the Native Americans, being pushed off their land and losing important parts of their culture. This is what makes cultural appropriation a problem. When someone who isn’t part of an oppressed group wears part of their culture, they are participating in that group’s oppression.
Now, cultural appropriation isn’t when you go to a friend’s wedding or other celebration and they invite you to take part in their culture. It isn’t attending a Native American ceremony and wearing a headdress when asked to. It’s about respecting that group’s culture and beliefs and history, and not using it to get compliments or a quick 15 seconds of fame, like Miley Cyrus did.