Of all the wackadoodle fads to have emerged from the world of academia in recent years, ‘cultural appropriation’ must be the craziest. Eagerly adopted by the intensely privileged who desperately want to claim victim status, the idea behind it is simple – anyone who adopts aspects of another culture is somehow ‘appropriating’ that culture and therefore abusing it. Depending on the level of lunatic that you are talking to, this can be anything from wearing Native American ceremonial headdress or Mexican sombreros to writing a novel in which the main character (or, indeed, any characters) are a different race, gender of sexuality from the author to eating in an Indian restaurant if you are not Indian. Essentially, in a world where cultures, races, sexualities and genders are blending and blurring, the Cultural Appropriation police want to reintroduce apartheid – enforcing separation and appreciation. Indeed, the more extreme proponents of this theory also oppose mixed race relationships as an example of appropriation.
Dreadlocks have been at the forefront of Cultural Appropriation in the last year or two, probably because they are an immediately visible, relatively permanent sign that ‘belongs’ to black culture (though if we want to split hairs, history tells us that dreadlocks were worn as far back as ancient Greece, and are not as exclusively Afro-Caribbean as some suggest). We’ve seen stories of hippies being physically attacked for having dreadlocked hair, and now fashion designer Marc Jacobs has come in for angry internet criticism for having white models sporting fake ‘locks in his Spring / Summer 2017 show at New York Fashion Week.
Looking at the images, it seems that is anyone was having their style appropriated here, it was cyber goths, who have sported this multi-coloured look for years. and who were clearly being referenced. But inevitably, the cry of ‘cultural appropriation’ went up from a handful of armchair warriors with nothing more pressing in their lives to worry about.
Jacobs didn’t really help the situation in his response, where he said “And all who cry “cultural appropriation” or whatever nonsense about any race of skin color wearing their hair in a particular style or manner – funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair.”
Which of course could be – and was – twisted into an attack on women of colour. He then followed with “I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race- I see people. I’m sorry to read that so many people are so narrow minded…Love is the answer. Appreciation of all and inspiration from anywhere is a beautiful thing. Think about it.”
“I don’t see color” might be a laudable statement – essentially saying that you judge people for who they are, not their race. But of course, it’s an easy comment to deliberately twist out of context, should you be inclined to do so. And plenty of people are very inclined to do so, with Jacobs now accused of outright racism by some of the more hysterical commenters, with the usual calls for boycotts and sneering abuse.
Eventually, Jacobs was forced to issue a further statement, erroneously reported by the BBC (in a piece that didn’t even acknowledge that ‘cultural appropriation’ is a very controversial concept) as ‘Marc Jacobs apologises over dreadlock controversy at New York Fashion Week’. In fact, Jacobs sensibly apologised for any misunderstanding of his earlier comments, not for the catwalk show:
“I apologize for the lack of sensitivity unintentionally expressed by my brevity. I wholeheartedly believe in freedom of speech and freedom to express oneself though art, clothes, words, hair, music…EVERYTHING. Of course I do “see” color but I DO NOT discriminate. THAT IS A FACT! Please continue to express your feelings freely but do it kindly. Nothing is gained from spreading hate by name calling and bullying.”
Bullying, of course, is what the righteous of social media love to engage in – a furious mob rule designed to close down debate or sensible discussion. It’s rather sad that it happens, and even sadder that the BBC – quick to be outraged by cyber-abuse in other circumstances – seems to think that this behaviour is just dandy if it is done by the ‘right’ side.