A while ago, I saw an exchange on Facebook of some old students, very smart and woke kids and different ethnicities, who grew up together in a unique multicultural school, where the white kids were usually the minority. One of the white students was asking - genuinely asking - if it would be too much to wear an African dress to the Black Panther premiere. She was really excited about the movie and everything that it stood for, and she wanted to go all out. This is what I love about this group of kids - not only do they think about things like that, but they reach across these ethnic barriers and share their experiences and wisdom with each other. And the best thing is that they do this before they act, instead of apologizing afterward. About five or six friends joined in the conversation, and the consensus was that a white girl wearing a dashiki or other African garb to the would definitely draw the wrong kind of attention, and would probably be seen as insensitive or thoughtless. It would have the exact opposite effect that the young woman wanted to project, and would distract from the event itself. The suggestion was to wear a Black Panther t-shirt or any other Black Panther gear to get in the mood and show some solidarity with the fans, and the added bonus is that she could actually wear those items again, almost any place, and get more value out of them.
It was a really beautiful exchange to watch, and one of the most interesting things about it was that it ended with the white girl completely understanding the situation, and remarking that it just felt weird that she couldn't wear something because of the color of her skin.
I think a lot of us white folks have this reaction to cultural appropriation, and all of those articles and YouTube videos telling us that wearing African garb, or saris, or cornrows, or Native American accessories is offensive to the cultures that produced them. Why can't I wear what I want to? I thought that was the whole point of defeating racism, we say.
The truth is, if you're white, nobody is saying you can't wear a dashiki, or African accessories, or whatever other cultural items you want. There is no force to stop you from doing this. The only consequence is that you risk offending people. If you're okay with that, then there probably isn't any other consequence at all. But that isn't true for everyone from every background or ethnicity.
For people of color, wearing cultural attire or hairstyles can have real consequences, far more severe that just hurting someone's feelings. There are a couple of Nigerian families in my church, and they often wear their long robes and head dresses to church, because that's considered formal in their culture, and hey want to dress up for church. I, on the other hand, wear jeans and a comfortable shirt, because I hate formal clothes. But if some of these same men and women wore their formal robes to work, they could get written up for being out of dress code. My wife has been told on several occasions that her natural hair was inappropriate for the workplace. Her hair is about as tight and kinky as possible, and its most natural shape is a low, tight afro that always looks neat, but apparently is unbecoming of an accountant, even one who doesn't deal with clients. For white folks, there is no comparison on this issue. A white woman with straight or wavy hair can pull it back in a ponytail if she's in a rush, and still be considered perfectly professional, but a woman with hair like my wife's has to spend time and effort on changing the natural texture and shape of her hair or she risks losing her job.
Attitudes matter, and ideas have consequences, but some ideas have more consequence than others, depending on whose ideas they are. In her famous essay, "On Seeing England for the First Time," Jamaica Kincaid wrote "I may be capable of prejudice, but my prejudices have no weight to them, my prejudices have no force behind them, my prejudices remain opinions, my prejudices remain my personal opinion." The opinion that white folks shouldn't wear cornrows or dashikis is an opinion that has no force behind it. Their jobs are not threatened, and they are not profiled as criminals or foreigners as a result. In fact, it works the other way. White folks can wear cornrows or dashikis or saris and be considered avant garde or exotic. They can walk down runways in New York or Paris wearing culturally appropriated attire and be lauded as "cutting edge" or "the next big thing." Not only doesn't it cost them anything, but it brings them very positive attention, except from a small, but growing, group who object to this. On the other hand, if some of my church members decides to wear clothes that are representative of their own culture, clothes that they consider professional or formal, they can be threatened with the loss of their jobs. Furthermore, they risk marking themselves as foreigners or immigrants, and incurring a very negative kind of attention from authorities and even neighbors. My wife is very blessed to have a job where she works in a very small company, and where she is surrounded by friends who grew up together and now work together, but, again, when she was working for more corporate accounting firms, the policy was that she would conform her appearance to the white norm of hairstyles. This was far more that just a cultural issue, since it meant that she had to spend $200-$300 each month on products and stylists in order to achieve this unnatural feat. This is the point I want to make to white folks who still don't understand the backlash against cultural appropriation. It doesn't seem fair that in order to keep her job, one woman should have to spend hundreds of dollars to achieve an appearance that another woman gets for ten dollars in shampoo and scrunchies.
That's the real source of the offense in cultural appropriation. Imagine if you had to wear a special mask in order to get a job or even move about safely in your neighborhood. Imagine if that mask covered up so many of the things that are inherently beautiful about you, things that you were proud or. Imagine that this mask was also expensive, so much so that you were aware that for the first day or two in any month, you were basically working just to pay for the mask you have to wear to keep the job in the first place. Imagine that this mask was a hassle to put on, but you couldn't really get by without it, because other people don't want to see the real you, because the real you is unprofessional or ugly or "thuggish."
Then imagine that other people were wearing other masks, masks that look like the real you, and somehow nobody seemed to think that they were ugly. Whenever they wear the mask that looks like you, everyone seems to think it's beautiful, even though it's just an imitation of your real self. The same features that you have to hide, out of self-preservation, they can flaunt, and be celebrated for it. Even though you couldn't do anything about it, you'd probably be offended too.