Whoopigate: the storm around the issue of cultural appropriation and black women wearing blonde hair and/or weaves
13 July 2016: As the US race debate crashes head first into the issue of black women wearing blonde hair and/or weaves, fuelled by Whoopi’s comments on a recent episode of The View (https://youtu.be/jbUFQZ1KuTsm) it’s time to throw in my two pennies’ worth.
If ‘cultural appropriation’ is when “a dominant group in society exploits the culture of a less-privileged group without understanding that group’s experience”, as explained by Sunny Hostin on the programme, then by definition black women wearing blonde hair and/or weaves is not an example of it; and, more importantly, black people in the US can never be guilty of it….unless they become the dominant group that is. Off the top of my head, West Africans who copy, make and sell the kilts that their Scottish ex-pats wear, to other West Africans, would be an example of black people being guilty of cultural appropriation.
Zainab Karim of Jet magazine (http://www.jetmag.com/talk-back-2/whoopi-goldberg-cultural-appropriation/#ixzz4DTCGpI2B) responds to Whoopi’s comments by saying that what is going on is ‘assimilation’ instead. She explains that “assimilation is the process by which a person or a group’s culture comes to resemble that of the dominant group. Essentially, assimilation is the culprit behind the phenomenon of skin lightening and the belief that lighter is better, or the idea that anything that resembles whiteness holds more weight. It was the colonizers way of destroying indigenous culture”. But this is a misuse of the word assimilation. As any dictionary or thesaurus will tell you, assimilation means integration, adjustment, acclimatisation, accommodation, adaptation, absorption and incorporation; so, examples of this are learning and then speaking the dominant’s group language, learning how to cook and then cooking the dominant group’s cuisine, and so on.
OK, yes, by ‘any dictionary or thesaurus’ I mean those readily available, and they are typically based on the English language that was constructed by white English people, so I will gladly review the above if anyone has a different definition from another type of thesaurus or dictionary.
What Karim is describing is the belief that anything that resembles that dominant group is of more value or importance. This belief is typically unconscious and has been brought about by enforced conditioning like slavery, plus covert racism and discrimination like institutionalised prejudice and exclusion. It is typically called ‘having a complex’ but that is a terrible expression because it blames the victim, and we need to call to something else like ‘unfair conditioning behaviour’.
Black women wearing blonde hair and/or weaves is not cultural appropriation or assimilation. It is not unfair conditioning behaviour either EXCEPT when the blonde hair and/or weaves are TOTALLY AT ODDS WITH THEIR FEATURES. There are a myriad of reasons why a black woman would wear blonde hair, straight hair, a weave or wig (convenience, fashion, protective styling, etc.) - see my old article on ‘Black women and wigs and weaves’.
Simi Belo, inventor, multiple award winning SimiWeave™ U part wig, 13 July 2016