We’ve gotten many requests to cover this topic, along with numerous questions like:
Is it okay for me to get braids?
Am I allowed to wear traditional cultural garments & accessories?
Will people see my actions as appropriation if I perform this type of dance or music?
The truth is that this topic has many layers of complexity, making questions like the ones listed above nearly impossible to answer definitively. While we don’t have the answers, we did some extensive reading & research on the topic, and will do our best to summarize our findings and unpack a few of those layers in this blog post.
To begin to approach Cultural Appropriation through a multiracial, multiethnic and multicultural lens, it’s important to first consider what it is. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Cultural Appropriation is defined as: “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” The problem with this definition is that it predicates a dichotomous relationship between different cultures. It assumes two mutually exclusive societies: the dominant one and the one whose customs, practices, ideas, etc., are being adopted. But it fails to consider individuals who fall in between the lines - those who are born into and are inherently a member of both societies.
So the question becomes - is it cultural appropriation if you are mixed? Where do you draw the line?
It appears there is no definitive answer. The response to this question is largely a matter of opinion, and...surprise...the opinions are mixed (pun intended). Some also believe it to be determined on a case-by case basis. The truth is that the implicit implications of the very concept of Cultural Appropriation make this question nearly impossible to answer.
With that in mind, we can explore some of the potential scenarios and opinions we came across regarding Cultural Appropriation and being mixed.
An article written by Georgia Chambers, who is mixed Black and White, discusses the scenario of being biracial, and wearing Black hairstyles:
The rules on who is allowed to wear black hairstyles have been a topic of ongoing conversation lately. Light-skinned Instagrammers and celebrities like Jasmine Sanders and Zendaya wear braids and wigs all the time without so much as a hint of backlash. Conversely, despite his mixed-race heritage, my brother is so pale that people sometimes assume his afro is a joke, running their fingers through it only to find out that he did, in fact, grow it himself. Sometimes, it seems one can only claim blackness to a certain extent, and once you no longer look like a person of color, you also lose the right to claim braids and locs as your own...Part of our judgement of cultural appropriation is, of course, based upon someone’s appearance and whether we deem them worthy enough of taking on a style or tradition of the associated minority culture. I’m dark-skinned enough to make my African-Caribbean heritage obvious, but there is still an internal worry that I’m not connected enough to this heritage to warrant adopting their hairstyles.
This, for me, is where judging cultural appropriation becomes more about someone’s cultural knowledge and cultural connections, a link threading far beyond one’s motivations for wearing locs or cornrows. There's no denying that having box braids made me feel more connected to black culture and that link isn't just a physical one, it's a deeper, spiritual one that you have to appreciate to understand. To wear black hairstyles is to acknowledge its origins and the traditions of our ancestors. With this in mind, I’m going to continue experimenting with different hairstyles while learning about their origins and cultural significance, connecting with my black community for whom such hairstyles are so important. In an effort to build a closer connection to my heritage, the next time I decide to rock locs or cornrows, I will acknowledge and appreciate the historical weight they carry.
Conversely, Alexis Nedd, who is Black and Puerto Rican, shares a different perspective, “There are lots of hairstyles that I think look gorgeous but stay away from for myself — specifically cornrows and their variations...No one ever told me those braided styles weren't for my hair, but my non-black parent did my hair growing up, and I feel like there's a whole education in black haircare and styling that I missed out on, and maybe I don't have a right to try this late in the game...If I jumped in with both feet now, I would feel appropriative.”
Another common scenario is wearing traditional/cultural garments and accessories. We found this quote from Jaya Saxena, who is half Indian, half White, particularly interesting:
The conversation about cultural appropriation is an important one, but limiting in scope, especially when it comes to mixed race people. Because while it may be easy to say a person of a dominant, colonialist culture shouldn’t wear the clothing of an oppressed one, well, what if you’re both? Mixed race people often have to straddle two or more cultures, figuring out where we fit in, and questioning if we will ever be “enough” for either side. And when it comes to fashion, it can easily feel like we’re appropriating ourselves.
Nobody has a solution. Every time I wear Indian jewelry or clothing, I know there are people who will see me as Indian, people who will see me as wearing something I shouldn’t, and people who will say that even though I have Indian heritage, I’m treated differently for wearing a sari than someone who is “really Indian.” These things are all true, and they all exist at the same time.
People say race is a construct, but it’s one that influences everything we do. It’s also a construct that, no matter how many discrete boxes it attempts to create, bleeds together. Mixed race people worry about how our family will perceive us, how white people perceive us, if strangers who share our backgrounds or who don’t will know who we really are just by looking at us. Perhaps a shared experience for all mixed race people is deciding which perception we listen to on any given day.
This perspective we encountered is from a woman named Thalia, who “is of Japanese and Russian-Jewish heritage, and her family has lived in America for multiple generations. She grew up coveting her parents’ and grandparents’ kimonos but lacking the cultural knowledge that would have made the garment hold meaning. ‘If I were to wear the kimono out of my house... I know it would feel like a costume,’ she says. ‘For now, the kimono and the other parts of Japanese culture... that I try on feel just like that — something I am trying but that doesn't quite belong to me.’”
A third scenario we came across is that of a mixed-race Chinese & white chef who cooks traditionally chinese food. Due to his “white passing” appearance, he has faced backlash about the authenticity of his ethnic cuisine. He wrote:
“The one dumpling to gentrify us all. This marketing project for some Eurasian kid trying to find his roots is cute and all but don’t play kid you are firmly entering the domain of Chinese grandmothers everywhere.”
Those were the inflamed words scrawled into the comments section of a reputable publication plugging my first ever pop-up restaurant. My stomach dropped as the familiar pangs of self-doubt and uncertainty came echoing back into my chest. At 1 AM, I was prepping ten gallons of pickles for a party and a comment like that was the last thing I wanted to read.
Passing as white makes my life easier at times, but to some people, it also delegitimizes my qualifications to cook Chinese food…Is my journey of engaging with my cultural identities for commercial gain acceptable? It all depends on how you do it...My business has been a rediscovery and celebration of myself. I am connecting with something which has seemed nebulous and unattainable to me for too long. I feel more comfortable with being mixed-race than I ever have before—and it’s through the creation of my food and the very practice of commercial enterprise, I have felt more Chinese than ever, too.
These perspectives are not definitive answers to the big question mark surrounding Cultural Appropriation and being mixed, but rather opinions that have been expressed on the topic. What is YOUR opinion? We want to hear from you. Comment or DM us to share your thoughts.
Written by Ruby Herrera
“Cultural Appropriation: Definition of Cultural Appropriation by Oxford Dictionary on Lexico.com Also Meaning of Cultural Appropriation.” Lexico Dictionaries | English, Lexico Dictionaries, www.lexico.com/definition/cultural_appropriation.
Chambers, Georgia. “How Being Biracial Makes Me Feel About Cultural Appropriation.” Teen Vogue, Teen Vogue, 21 Feb. 2018, www.teenvogue.com/story/how-being-biracial-makes-me-feel-about-cultural-appropriation.
Saxena, Jaya. “Can You Appropriate Your Own Culture?” Racked, Racked, 9 Nov. 2017, www.racked.com/2017/11/9/16613070/self-appropriation-multiple-cultures-mixed-race.