Thought of the Day: Cultural Appropriation

Basketball bores the shit out of me. But I have to tip my hat, assuming that is something distinct to my own culture and not some vile act of appropriation which will garner me condemnation from some other culture who has laid claim to hat tipping, to Jeremy Lin. Lin is a basketball player from California whose parents immigrated from Taiwan. And this season he took to the courts sporting some fairly ridiculous-looking dreadlocks.

Kenyon Martin, a retired basketball player who was born in Michigan and raised in Dallas, made headlines when he called out Lin for his new hairstyle, accusing him of “cultural appropriation.” Apparently, adopting styles that one group of people has claimed as its own is a bad thing. Which seems odd to me, because I’d think a group of people who have endured a history of abuse and oppression would actually take some comfort and perhaps even a little pride in what Martin claims is Lin’s desire to be a part of that group. I would think that Martin would celebrate the fact that Lin and others are openly embracing what they feel are traits distinct to his culture.

Lin certainly touched on this point in his initial response, noting that both players are members of racial minorities and suggesting that “…the more we appreciate each other’s cultures, the more we influence mainstream society.” He also astutely called out Martin’s hypocrisy, pointing out that Martin has Chinese tattoo’s. Clearly Martin had no problem appropriating Lin’s culture, yet was quite upset when Lin apparently appropriated his.

As the debate played out publicly, few have acknowledged the racist undertones in Martin’s remarks. For example, he referred to Lin as “this boy” and “these people.” Imagine the outcry if Lin had referred to Martin in such terms? It makes me wonder if David Duke should be angry with Martin for his cultural appropriation of terms deeply rooted in white Southern racist culture?

It’s also important to note that Lin is not a racist, and therefore his adoption of a hairstyle that’s widely considered to be a “black hairstyle” is not meant to mock or offend. This is not a case of a Klansman who is spending $50 a month in tanning salon so his skin can look less white. Lin plays in the National Basketball Association, where 74 percent of his colleagues are black. He has been surrounded by blacks and black culture for most of his life. And getting dreadlocks is evidence of how much he has positively embraced that culture.

For his part, Lin penned an insightful piece about his journey to dreads. Clearly his intent was to sport a hairstyle that was popular among his teammates and friends. Which reinforces my belief that anyone who supports black culture should celebrate Lin’s decision to get dreads as a positive affirmation of that culture (if indeed that’s what dreads represent, but more on that in a moment).

First, let’s acknowledge that hair is more than just hair in black culture. The afro has been seen as a black-positive hairstyle, much like dreadlocks, because it’s seen as more “natural.” Conversely, straight and smooth hair, often artificially created through a nasty-ass process known as “relaxing” it, has been seen as Uncle Tomish, trying to emulate white culture. And if you are unfamiliar with all of this, I highly recommend watching Chris Rock’s documentary on the subject.

But back to dreadlocks, their origins, and what they may or may not represent. This hairstyle was made popular by Jamaicans, specifically the Rastafarians, which leaves me wondering if Martin’s family comes from Jamaica. If not, then shouldn’t he be apologizing to Jamaicans – or at least the Rastafarians – for cultural appropriation? And to that end, why hasn’t Martin called-out other basketball players who are guilty of cultural appropriation, being non-Jamaicans who have appropriated the dreadlock hairstyle from Jamaican culture, such as Chris Bosh, Marquis Daniels, Kenneth Faried, Brain Grant, Latrell Sprewell, and Etan Thomas? Has he held his tongue because they are black? And, if so, does that make Martin a racist?

Of course, I have no way of knowing whether or not any of those aforementioned basketball players are third- or fourth-generation descendants from Jamaica, or perhaps Rastafarians, in which case the hairstyle would indeed be a part of their cultural heritage. Which raises the question of how much of a connection does one need to a particular culture to justify their alleged appropriation? And since science tells us we are all descendants from Africa, doesn’t that make this whole discussion kind of silly?

I don’t understand cultural appropriation. For starters, what specifically defines a culture? And what about distinctions within what’s presumed to be a distinct culture? Are there not cultural distinctions between black Americans, black Africans, and black Caribbeans? And, if so, are they allowed to borrow freely from one another simply because of the level a melanin in their skin?

Is there a white culture? And if so, are there things that non-whites are not allowed to appropriate from it? For example, should black women be allowed to straighten their hair, dye it blond, or wear wigs that achieve the same affect, given that those hairstyles are more traditionally associated with white culture? Should there be an outcry against blacks who wear Timberland boots and North Face jackets, both of which were initially popularized by whites?

Making these kinds of distinctions can get very confusing for those who complain about cultural appropriation. For example, is a white person not allowed to use a touch-tone phone, caller I.D. and call waiting because they were invented by a black woman? And is a black person then not allowed to use any phone because it was invented by a bunch of white guys, one of whom went on to create the lab in which the aforementioned black woman made her inventions? And would the latter fact negate her inventions because they were made in a lab created by white culture?

Given the world we live in, where cultures have been living together for ages, what makes something truly unique to a given culture? Koreans are believed to have invented pants, so does that mean the rest of us are appropriating Korean culture when we wear them? Should we apologize for our pants?

What makes such things distinct to one culture and not another? Is it because someone from that culture created them, or because someone from that culture borrowed it from another and then popularized it through their own culture? And who do you need to ask permission from before you “appropriate” something? Is it simply a question of acknowledging its origins and respecting them? If so, what exactly constitutes acknowledgement and respect?

Finally, is this really about culture, or is it about race? Are these claims of cultural appropriation nothing more than a backlash against years of deep-seated racism, or a way to reinforce racial stereotypes? Are they intended to be a form of cultural racism, or is that just an unpleasant byproduct of trying to hold onto cultural identity on an increasingly assimilating world?

As you can see, I have a lot of questions about cultural appropriation. And there don’t seem to be a lot of clear answers to any of them. But perhaps the most poignant question of all is whether or not we want to be drawing more lines between one another.

I, for one, have seen far too much racism, hatred, and bigotry in my lifetime – based on everything from race, religion, culture, and nationality. And it mystifies me why anyone, particularly someone who has likely endured a lifetime of overt and institutional oppression, would want to foster more of that in our society by trying to use something as simple as a hairstyle to build even more boundaries between us.