Growing up as an African American female in the United States is one of the most rewarding and frustrating experiences. There is a huge sense of pride that comes from understanding the historical oppression of my race. Hardships faced were the gateway to an ambitious community, inspired intellect, rhythmic creations and a peculiar aesthetic. These characteristics are the foundation of our culture as African Americans. They are what makes us, us. With these characteristics come the behaviors and mannerisms that have been developed by our ancestors and continue to progress as our culture does. To see our behaviors adopted by cultures outside of our own can be seen as an embrace, but when that individual only embraces the culture and not the person, there lies an issue.
During the Spring 2016 season of Paris Fashion Week, Valentino presented a beautiful collection that was heavily influenced by the refugees fleeing from Senegal, Nigeria, Eritrea, Mali, Gambia and other African countries. The designers told Vogue that the “message was tolerance” and that “beauty comes out of cross-cultural expression”. This may have been the intended message, however, the result begs to differ. The lack of diversity on Valentino’s runway counteracts this idea of “understanding other cultures”. Out of the 91 models that walked the runway, less than 10 of the models were of African descent. The majority that walked were White. It doesn’t stop there, however. The models all wore cornrows, an ancient hairstyle descending from Africa, appropriating African culture.
The antique component of the cornrow hairstyle is a clear example of how essential hair is in the black community. This year, Amandla Stenberg, Hunger Games star, delivered a crash course on black culture appropriation in a viral video entitled “Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows” discussing hair, in particular. Black hair requires specific attention, thereby the creation of hairstyles such as braids, twists, etc. In the video, Stenberg mentions the creation of hip hop music and describes it as an affirmation of African American identities and voices. Society has seen such hairstyles on many hip hop and R&B legends, and as their music became popular, black culture did as well. Stenberg revealed images of celebrities wearing cornrows, Miley Cyrus twerking with black models, Katy Perry eating watermelon and using “black slang”, models on the runway showcasing “high fashion” cornrows, and fashion media deeming these ancient hairstyles as a “new urban hairstyle”.
The recreation of a hairstyle who’s inception dates back thousands of years shows a lack of originality and blatant disrespect to the originator. Black culture may be popular, but black people are not. Outside of the physical attributes, stereotypes against black people corrupt the minds of many, especially law enforcement. In today’s society, a black man can’t walk through a neighborhood without looking “suspicious.” Take Trayvon Martin, for example. A 17-year-old boy who walked through a neighborhood on the way to his Father’s house. During his walk, he was followed by neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, because he looked “suspicious.” Afterwhile, Zimmerman got out of his car and proceeded to confront Martin even after the police informed Zimmerman not to. Martin reacted like any human would if a random guy followed them around in a normal truck wearing normal clothes, with fear and defense. The confrontation ended with the death of Martin who was shot by Zimmerman. This event took the media by storm and outraged the African American community. Zimmerman was found not guilty of all charges.
This was the verdict that gave birth to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. This was the verdict that made African Americans question the authenticity of those who find black culture to be great, but not the lives of the people from where that culture derives from. It’s moments like this one that cultural exchange should go beyond the aesthetic level. You can’t open your mind to dancing to black music and enjoying the lifestyle and then miss the opportunity to make real progress and change the world for the better. The world has to learn how to engage with the creators of the things that it loves so much.
In today’s society, culture moves quickly. One of the joys of being a part of such a modern society is witnessing the constant exchange of ideas, styles and traditions. In an ideal world, we are all equal. We can adopt whatever behavior we want despite what history may be because we are open to an idea beyond the aesthetic one. We are open to the idea that we are people with our own stories and because of that, we don’t limit or judge based on what we see. It’s not about what you look like, how you wear your hair, what music is in your earbuds. It’s about you. It’s about the soul beneath the body. When the world can agree to that idea, it will be the truest form of cultural exchange.