Skip to content

Cultural appropriation: When and where is the line crossed?


The term “cultural appropriation” has been a part of the English lexicon for roughly five decades, but lately it has been in the news and all over social media quite often. But what exactly does it mean?

Generally, it means to take elements from a minority group into the dominant culture but failing to respect the originators in terms of history and/or beliefs. For instance, if a White woman tans excessively, or uses darker make-up than her natural skin tone—as well as styling her hair in cornrows or weaves for instance—some Black people would consider this as offensive. Some would even argue dreadlocks on White people is offensive. However, dreads did not originate in Africa, but can be traced back to India and Europe as far as 3,600 years to the Minoan Civilization. Regardless of its history, this specific subject might be sensitive to some Black people who wear their hair in locs.


Last November, Swedish model and social media influencer, Emma Hallberg, received some backlash where many accused her for pretending to be Black. Shortly after, Twitter threads with the hashtag “Blackfishing” were all over social media. According to the term “Blackfishing” means, “for a female of European descent to appear of African, Arab, or Hispanic ancestry.”

Hallberg however denied the accusations, saying she was only playing with make-up.

“I do not see myself as anything else than White,” Hallberg told Buzzfeed.“I get a deep tan naturally from the sun.”

Transracial and cultural appropriation

Another woman who shocked the nation, Rachel Dolezal, is former president of the Spokane, Wash. chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Dolezal, who is White and even got outed by her parents, identifies with being Black. This is more than crossing a line of being “culturally appropriate,” Dolezal calls herself “transracial.”

The term “transracial” means that someone adapts a different race/identity than their birth race. Dolezal said in an interview with the Today Show that she has identified with being Black as a child, drawing self-portraits with brown crayons. She also said, her birth father is an African-American, which was later denied by her parents.

Regardless of her race-identification, Dolezal said that news stories were the one who first called her something else than White, due to all her activism in social justice in the Black community.

“I was actually identified when I was doing human rights work in north Idaho as first trans-racial,” she told the Today Show.

Although Dolezal was a member of the NAACP, many African-Americans took offense to her behavior, as well as considered her to be a fraud. Dolezal countered the accusations of her “pretending to be Black,” by saying she doesn’t put on a “Black face for performance purposes,” but that she enhances her skin tone, with sun tanning, and that her African-American hair stylist, styles her hair accordingly to her identified race.

Regardless of her “newly-found” race, Dolezal sued Howard University, saying she was allegedly denied the teaching position, as well as the funds and other opportunities, because of being White.

Dolezal is not the only White person, supposedly facing an “identity crisis.” German model Martina Adams, also known as Martina Big, took it a step further physically becoming “Black.” Adams, who changed her name to Malaika Kubwa after being baptized in Kenya to become “a real African-American woman” as she claims, received first media attention because of her breast augmentation, and for being the first European with the largest implants.

Now, she’s also the first White woman that turned Black by tanning injections. To alter her appearance further and be more “authentic,” Kubwa styled her hair into a thick weave—like Dolezal—and went further with lip fillers, and a nose job. Her future plan is to move to Kenya, to have the real “Black experience.” People all over the internet were outraged when they saw her on the Maury show. Adams is even under the impression, her children will be Black.

A cultural ‘exchange’?

And where some would argue, to experiment with different hairstyles, clothes, and make-up that represent other cultures, is like following a new trend, others would say that it’s not a trend. And should never be considered as one.

Whereas White women can dress and supposedly conduct themselves with a Black countenance, the latter women can remove their dark-toned makeup and rock a different hairstyle. Black women are forced to hide their natural hair because of fear to be discriminated against in school or the workplace. So it’s not that Black women are taking away from Whites and their culture, but more so they are forced to participate.

“There isn’t any evidence of any White women or White children who have been dismissed for doing their hair in a certain way even if it’s the appropriation of Black hairstyles,” said Dr. Zinga Fraser, assistant professor in Africana Studies at Brooklyn College in New York. “We can’t equalize Black women and Black girls’ experiences in terms of hair and beauty in the same way that we look at White women’s hair and beauty culture.”

The fashion industry also received some scrutiny in regards to crossing the line of cultural appropriation. Gucci got heat for using turbans, and Marc Jacobs got heat for using dreads on White girls. His response on his social media was,

“Funny how you don’t criticise women of colour for straightening their hair.”

After his social media accounts were flooded with comments and accusations of being a racist, he apologized for being insensitive.

Victoria Secret also received some backlash in 2017, for incorporating a Native American headpiece on one of its White models.

A major issue is the lack of diversity by representing different cultural inspirations, such as the afro. But many fashion experts—such as Designer Jane Kellock—who is the founder of Unique Style Platform, and also worked with brands such as TopShop, doesn’t believe fashion designers rip off cultures purposely. She believes however that the industry often times crosses boundaries of cultural appropriation.

“Design is a mish-mash of different styles, cultures, ideas – and that’s what makes it interesting,” Kellock told BBC News in an interview. “Fashion brands have to be more aware and diverse in general, because they’re not. They’re really not. They’d rather use a celebrity that they know will get lots of people interested in it, rather than the original source of the idea.”

But where did the term cultural appropriation stem from?

According to,

“The term ‘cultural appropriation” emerged in academic literature as early as the 1960s as a tool used to critique colonialism and its effects. The term gradually moved from scholarly jargon into online social-justice activism.”

Celebrities caught in controversy

Many celebrities received scrutiny as well, when it comes to being culturally appropriate. Katy Perry received backlash of mocking a hip-hop related dance move, Justin Bieber for wearing dreads, and Kendall Jenner for wearing an afro for a Vogue photo shoot.

Although those cases are highly criticized, opponents say by calling out people to be offensive or inappropriate, that the “targeted group” is considered to be oversensitive, as well as to promote segregation by pushing cultures away from each other.

Because the U.S. and Europe are a cultural hub, it’s a given that cultures exchange. However, the line gets crossed when cultures are being disrespected, for example by White people using the N-word because they are influenced by rap and hip-hop, or pretending to be anything else than White. The same goes for wearing Native American head pieces, or painting one’s face Black to be part of a Halloween costume.

According to,

“As a tool in the social-justice arsenal, people use the term ‘cultural appropriation’ critically and usually, choosing to label the behavior of others as being ‘culturally appropriate.’The term itself is often present in circles dedicated to social justice as a means of starting a dialogue and talking about why an action someone did was wrong. This often happens when a celebrity or a piece of media is found to have culturally-offensive content. The offending party is called out by others in an attempt to get them to acknowledge it, but to also allow bystanders to learn from it. The ultimate goal is to raise awareness and to prevent future, similar instances of the behavior.”