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Watch Out! You Might Be Engaging in Cultural Appropriation When You Shop—Here’s How to Tell

Danielle Campoamor
·8-min read

Jenna Brillhart, HelloGiggles

With the Latinx diaspora expanding over 20 countries, “Hispanic” isn’t a one-size-fits-all term—especially when it comes to beauty and style. As Hispanic womxn, we’re challenging these narratives by embracing all aspects of our culture and choosing which ones are right for us. This Hispanic Heritage Month, HelloGiggles will be taking a deep dive into the beauty of our culture through Mi Cultura, Mi Belleza. We’ll be featuring essays about hair and identity, giving beauty tips from our abuelitas, highlighting the unique style of the Afro-Latina community, and more.

Every notable, mainstream American fashion or beauty trend, regardless of how unique each fad may be, has at least two things in common: They come and go, then come back again, and they’re likely rooted in Black and Brown cultures. From box braids to dark lipliner to intricate headdresses to fringe purses, the trends many white fashion designers and Instagram influencers label as “cutting-edge” have, more often than not, been history-rich staples of self-expression for and by Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people.

Which makes realizing whether or not you, as a shopper, are engaging in cultural appropriation—aka when someone takes from a culture other than their own and claims ownership—somewhat disorienting. Even I, a white-passing Puerto Rican woman who feels removed from her Latinx culture by way of her appearance and upbringing, have made the mistake of appropriating Black and Brown beauty trends that are not my own. But in a country defined and powered by systemic racism, laws, and policies that make it more difficult for Black and Brown people to access adequate healthcare, housing, food, education, livable wages, and employment opportunities, it is paramount to be mindful of the trends you choose to emulate.

As conscientious consumers, it’s important to ensure that we are not doing additional harm to communities of color by way of our pocketbooks or accidentally white-washing BIPOC identities. Knowing the definition of appreciation versus appropriation is a solid start in establishing ethical and culturally respectful shopping habits. Greenheart International, a cultural exchange and eco-fair trade organization focused on connecting people through travel and commerce, defines the “appreciation” of cultures that are not your own as an instance “when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally.” The organization defines “appropriation,” on the other hand, as moments when a person takes “one aspect of a culture that is not [their] own and [uses] it for [their] own personal interest.”

There isn’t a shortage of examples of appropriation when it comes to fashion and beauty. Whether it’s Kylie Jenner wearing her hair in twists, Adele wearing her hair in Bantu knots, or Ashley Tisdale wearing a sugar skull costume, many celebrities have knowingly or unknowingly appropriated Black and Latinx culture. But it isn’t just people with massive platforms and influence who make this mistake. As HelloGiggles writer Adrienne Kenne reported in 2017, many Coachella attendees wore inappropriate Native headdresses that year. After Kenne’s reporting, one headdress-wearing white attendee went on to take down her pictures, writing online: “I want to genuinely apologize to anyone who has been upset about my headdress post at Coachella.” She went on to say, “While the headdress I wore was beautiful and I wanted to highlight its beauty, I regret wearing it.”

In this woman’s seemingly sincere apology lies the crux of the problem with appropriation. More often than not, it is done without intentional malice: white or non-Black and Brown people see something they find aesthetically pleasing and decide to wear it. But instead of educating themselves on the item’s origin, the reasons why it exists, and the people behind it, they take it as their own, often acting as if they were the ones who “discovered” the item in the first place.

“So many facets of Black culture, both historically and contemporaneously, have become synonymous with mainstream American culture,” Keisha Brown, an associate professor of history at Tennessee State University, told HuffPost in February of this year. “A related issue at hand is the separation of Black culture from the peoples and history that created it. People embrace the hip or popular elements of Black culture but not Black Americans.”

And of course, it’s not just Black culture that’s subject to appropriation. Whether it’s white fashion designers co-opting Japanese kimonos or white pop stars memorizing a few Spanish lyrics to appear “cultured,” there isn’t a non-white community that isn’t at risk of being appropriated. As David Beltrán wrote for Sojourners, a progressive monthly magazine and online publication powered by the American Christian social justice organization Sojourners, "It is important to understand that white supremacy and xenophobia do not stop at the door of the recording studio, artist collective, or the radio station. These are systemic issues in America, infecting every aspect of our lived experience. This is why it is imperative to critically analyze the art we consume and the stories that pop music centers.”

When you appropriate Brown and Latinx culture via the next “hip” beauty trend or fashion statement, you center yourself in an expression of a complex, multifaceted, and history-rich culture that is not and never has been yours. And, in doing so, you harm the very people who are responsible for its existence. Because while you can easily take out your braids and wipe off dark lip liner, Black and Brown people cannot. They don’t have the privilege of taking off their skin or changing their beauty looks at any time, even in situations that might cause them to fear for their lives or employment.

When you engage in cultural appropriation as a shopper, you degrade Black and Brown cultures to nothing more than an accessory, rather than acknowledging those communities and the ways they’ve shaped American culture—as well as how they’ve been stifled by racist ideologies and policies.

So no, there is nothing wrong with thinking a serape blanket is beautiful. But before you purchase four of them to drape over the back of your beige couches, you should know that these blankets—first used as men’s outerwear—originated in the second half of the 18th and first half of the 19th century in Mexican textile manufacturing towns. You should also know that they consist of both European and Native American elements—a byproduct of colonization.

Before you purchase a pair of huarache sandals, you should know that this particular type of footwear has been part of Mexican culture that predates European colonization. You should also know that these shoes were handmade in the Jalisco, Michoacán, and Yucatan regions and that the term “kwarachi”—as reported by Espiritu, a group of Mexican shoe makers—comes from Tarascan, “a language spoken by the Purépecha people native to Michoacán.”

If you like intricately embroidered purses and clutches, that’s okay! But please know that the embroidery “trend” has roots in the Aztec empire, when Indigenous Mexicans would use yucca and palm tree fibers to create beautiful embroidered textiles.

Marco Bottigelli, HelloGiggles

Simply learning about the cultures that produced these items is not enough, though. Cultural harm reduction does not begin and end with education but instead involves and requires meaningful action and thoughtful consideration. Do not purchase these items from white-owned companies who have appropriated these cultural staples for profit. Instead, search lists of Black-owned beauty companies and Latinx-owned brands who produce these items with authenticity, dignity, and pride and help give credit where it’s due.

Then, be an ally by donating to organizations that are doing the work to make the world more equitable for Black and Latinx people. You can consider setting up one-time or recurring payments to places such as the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, Voto Latino, Chicanos por la Causa, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). There are also over 154 Black-led organizations that you can set up recurring donations to, as well as the American Indian College Fund, the Native American Disability Law Center, and Women Empowering Women for Indigenous Nations—all organizations working to support and advance Indigenous communities.

And if you really want to avoid cultural appropriation altogether, simply avoid trying beauty and fashion trends born out of cultures that are not your own. There is nothing wrong with admiring the beauty and allure of certain hair, makeup, nail, and fashion styles from a distance—or appreciating that they exist without engaging with them.

Because you cannot, and should not, appreciate the beauty of Black and Brown trends without also working to support and advance the communities responsible for their existence. These are not mutually exclusive. It’s not just about a purse or a headdress or a blanket—it’s about an entire group of people, rich in history, ingenuity, resourcefulness, and worth.