Two summers ago, I attended the Firefly Music Festival in Dover, Delaware. I met a woman there who wore box braids, a style traditionally worn by Black women in which the hair is parted into individual boxes.
But she was white, and she was wearing them just for the festival.
People were gushing over how good they looked, but it bothered me that she failed to realize the significance of that hairstyle in the Black community. Box braids are extremely popular and have been worn by African women for centuries as a way to protect their hair and maintain its health.
It’s problematic when white women adopt hairstyles like box braids — a key component of the Black identity — just for fun, especially when Black women are constantly scrutinized for their hair.
Cultural appropriation, or adopting elements of another culture and treating them as your own, is a problem. It has become prominent at concerts as people wear clothes and items they wouldn’t normally wear in everyday life to celebrate. As summer music festivals like Firefly and Bonnaroo start to kick off, avid concert-goers need to avoid appropriating other cultures with clothing, hairstyles and tattoos. Instead, they need to educate themselves on the significance of cultural practices and items so they don’t misrepresent others.
“It’s a respect thing,” said Jessica Hamilton, a teaching assistant and graduate student in the Africology and African-American Studies department. “Everyone’s culture has historical legacy and narrative that is not being celebrated.”
Headdresses, henna tattoos, dashikis and box braids are just some of the elements often appropriated from other cultures at music festivals. And while festival participants may think they are just expressing themselves or having fun, they may really be making members of a particular culture feel disrespected, disregarded and mocked.
For instance, a bindi for some South Asian women is a cultural item that represents the third eye, and is a sign of wisdom and spiritual development. But many of those who decide to wear bindis to festivals clearly don’t know this meaning. For attendees, it’s just another part of a costume.“My mom used to get really weird looks whenever she would wear her cultural items,” said Aishika Jennela, vice president of the Asian Students Association. “So to see that become a trend, and to see others getting praised for something I can’t do myself without getting looks feels very off to me.”
Jennela said she has seen people appropriate South Asian cultural pieces like the sari, a draped garment that is usually embroidered with a theme or story.
It’s not fair for people to wear items from another culture for their own personal enjoyment, while simultaneously mocking their origins.
“It’s like if you were to write a paper that you spent all of this time writing, and you turn it in and you get a C- or even a D, and then someone else turns in your exact paper, and they get an A,” Hamilton said.
Although cultural appropriation is wrong, there is nothing wrong with cultural exchange, sharing in other people’s cultures in a way that they welcome. However, the time and place of such an exchange matters — a festival or a concert is simply not the proper setting.
“If someone has a very good friend who happens to be South Asian, from India, or is Hindu and is getting married and they’re a part of the wedding party, if they understood the importance of the henna tattoos … then they would be able to get that as long as it was being done respectfully,” said Michelle Myers, an Asian studies instructor. “But that’s a call that has to be made by people in the culture.”
If people are truly interested in other cultures, then they need to educate themselves about that culture, not simply pick and choose what parts of it they feel like borrowing. There are ways to appreciate a culture without appropriating it, and this starts with having open conversations to enlighten people.
If you see someone at a festival this summer or anywhere else appropriating another culture, try to educate them on the cultural significance of the items they may be appropriating. It is vital for people to have a greater understanding of why cultural appropriation should be avoided.
Simone Stancil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.