Kylie Jenner, Allure and making sense of cultural appropriation
A few weeks ago, Kylie Jenner unwittingly found herself in the middle of a cultural appropriation debate after she posted a midriff-baring Instagram picture of herself sporting cornrows. Her accompanying “I woke up like disss” caption only added fuel to the already heated discussions regarding white women getting a pass for the same hairstyles and attire that women of color get ostracized for.
Fast forward to today, and all of a sudden Allure is caught up in the same debate. The magazine featured an article teaching white women how to curl and tease their straight hair into an afro. The title of the article notes that “You (Yes, You) Can Have an Afro” even if you have straight hair.
The featured model in the tutorial was Marissa Neitling, who looked amazingly bi-racial post afro, but couldn’t look whiter with her natural hair.
On its face, the tutorial seems harmless, and had I been as ignorant on the issue of cultural appropriation as I was a month ago, I would have dismissed the criticism that Allure is dealing with. But as soon as someone with an open mind investigates the context of cultural appropriation, and the double standard of beauty for white vs. black women, it’s not hard to understand that society celebrates a style on those with fair skin, and then turns around and criticizes the exact same look on women of color.
When white women sport a traditionally black hairstyle, they’re considered edgy trendsetters. When black women celebrate their natural hair, they’re more likely to get discriminated against, which is why so many feel pressured to straighten their hair.
In fact, I always thought that cultural appropriation went both ways since everyone changes the natural texture of their hair to follow trends. I was too narrow-minded at the time to realize that black women straighten their hair out of necessity and the need for survival, while white women can do whatever they’d like and not worry about the same discrimination.
This whole notion of cultural appropriation reminded me of a good friend of mine who has naturally kinky hair. She would rock an afro regularly, and looked beautiful doing it. But once she got hired by a new company, they urged her to straighten her hair to be “camera ready.” I always thought that was ridiculous, especially since she was gorgeous with her natural hair. But I never realized how common it was for black women to be told by their employers that what grew out of their heads was unacceptable and unprofessional at the workplace.
As a white woman with an Armenian background, I’ve never been told what I should and shouldn’t do with my hair. That happens to be a privilege that blinded me to the realities of what black women have to deal with.
Meteorologist Rhonda Lee experienced similar treatment while working at an ABC affiliate in Shreveport, Louisiana. Lee would sport her natural hair while on-air, and a viewer wrote in demanding that she “wear a wig or grow more hair.” When Lee respectfully replied and explained she was a black woman who was proud of her hair’s natural texture, her employers fired her. Unfortunately, stories like this are not rare for black women.
Allure’s tutorial made it seem as though the afro is a fun costume or beauty statement, when in reality it was an important symbol of black pride during the civil rights era. There was no mention of that in the article, which only made their piece even more frivolous and insulting to the black community.
Society as a whole seems to enjoy and celebrate black culture, yet demonize black people at the same time. A superficial look at the cultural appropriation debate makes it seem as though it’s an attack on white people who like black culture, but it’s more about attacking a societal virus that ignores the strife of black people, while taking on parts of their identities that we want for ourselves.
It’s important to reform societal attitudes and biases, and sometimes the only way to do so is to point to specific people, like Kylie Jenner, who get a pass for emulating a style that black women can’t get a pass for. It’s a complex and uncomfortable discussion to have, which is why I failed in understanding it before. But the only way to move toward equality for all is to understand the unique perspectives of everyone.