Cultural appropriation: When and where is the line crossed?

An old term stirs new controversy

Isabell Rivera OW Contributor | 8/30/2019, midnight
The term “cultural appropriation” has been a part..

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 urbandictionary.com 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.