The Continued Commercialisation of Black Culture: 200 Years On

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Within the last few years, an increasing trend among white women to appropriate features typically seen on Black women has become apparent. Features such as larger lips, bums and wider hips and certain hairstyles are being replicated in white women and are now firmly situated as a benchmark for modern beauty standards. Features for which Black women’s bodies have been policed and frowned upon for generations have been transplanted on to white women to be celebrated, idolised and lusted after. 

The hypocrisy is blatant; there is disdain for Black features on Black women, but these features get swept up into trends and fads, processed out of their Blackness and handed back out for white women to pick and choose from as they wish. In some cases, this appropriation of Black features and Black culture even renumerates white women who have a large enough following. 

This phenomenon in the UK, unsurprisingly, largely comes from Britain’s colonial past. During the early 1800’s, a South African Khoekhoe woman known as Sarah Baartman, was brought over to Britain and toured around the country, as part of an attraction for a “freak show”. At the time, the colour of her skin and her larger buttocks were seen as unusual and her features were paraded around for her promoters to capitalise on. Even more than 200 years later, the appropriation of black females continues to occur.

A caricature of Sarah Baartman, drawn in 19th century. Credit: Wikipedia

Here, it is important to draw the distinction between appreciation and appropriation. Maisha Johnson, from Everyday Feminism defines cultural appropriation as ‘when other people take elements of traditionally Black culture without knowledge of or respect for what it means to Black folks’. Appreciation, however, would protect the ownership of a culturally specific feature and avoid profiting from the infringement of someone else’s culture. LeRhonda Manigault-Bryant, a professor of Africana Studies at Williams College, argues that giving credit for a feature that is being used is also vital to the distinction between appropriation and appreciation, since ‘in academic communities, we would call that plagiarism… We should truly get in the business of paying honour and homage where it’s due’.

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One of the best examples of this? The women of the Kardashian family (this wouldn’t be an article about Black appropriation without a shoutout to these ladies). The sisters did not only build their personal brand of aesthetic on appropriation, but have influenced millions of other women into seeing it as is acceptable to do the same. Countlessly, they have worn hairstyles made for black females and rebranded them as their own without accrediting the culture it was taken from. Whilst their success as businesswomen should be applauded, the marginalisation and appropriation of other minority women, should not be a by-product of their fame. The continuous enlargement of their lips and buttocks’ which have contributed to their fame, are now two of the most common aesthetic procedures done by women both in the US and the UK. In 2015, after Kylie Jenner admitted to having had lip filler, demand for the procedure in clinics in the US increased by 70%.

The oppression that exists within the appropriation of Black female features and culture is becoming more and more pervasive in society and continues to be upheld by those who have large platforms that come with significant amounts of influence. It is therefore important to understand the difference between appropriation and appreciation and allow Black women, as well as other minorities, to own and celebrate their cultures without risk of it being unjustly taken away from them.

Header image: Christopher Polk / Getty Images for MTV file