Kate Moss’s daughter under fire for braids
In her modelling debut, 14-year-old Lila Grace Moss Hack has been accused of cultural appropriation. Is that fair? When it comes to culture, at what point does exchange become theft?
As a supermodel’s daughter, Lila Grace Moss Hack has big (and glamorous) shoes to fill. But nobody predicted that her first foray into fashion would go this wrong.
Lila’s appearance in a promotional photo for London salon Braid Bar, alongside fellow model Stella Jones, has triggered a furious backlash. The issue? The models, who are both white, are wearing cornrows, a traditionally black hairstyle. On social media and elsewhere, Lila is being accused of cultural appropriation.
This term is fairly new, although the practice is as old as time. Coined by academics in the 1970s, it entered the mainstream a few years ago as a way to describe the process whereby cultures borrow from each other. With the rise of identity politics, which celebrates the uniqueness of different cultural groups, a growing number of people see such appropriation as a problem.
Lila is hardly the first person to be charged with appropriating black culture. Kim Kardashian West has been criticised for braiding her hair. Miley Cyrus, for twerking. The designer Valentino, for using white models to promote an African-influenced collection. Moreover, black people have accused them of failing to speak out against racism. As rapper Azealia Banks put it, “Black culture is cool, but black issues sure aren’t huh?”
Nor is the issue confined to fashion. This week, white artist Damien Hirst infuriated some by unveiling a sculpture that closely resembles an old bronze head from Nigeria. Viewers “won’t think Nigeria”, laments Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor. “[They] will grow up to know this work as Damien Hirst’s.”
Popular anger inspired by cultural appropriation, and mostly spread through social media, can have big impacts. University students have banned everything from sombreros to chav-themed parties. In 2015, Glastonbury restricted the sale of Native American-style costumes in response to a 65-signature petition.
So far, Lila’s campaign is still running. Should it be axed? Is cultural appropriation really that bad?
Black and white
Calm down, say some. Are we being offensive when we eat sushi? Dance to salsa? Use French words? Cultural exchange is a fact of humanity. It enriches our societies, and can even save traditions or products from dying out. If anything, those who try to police the behaviour of others on account of their race are the racist ones.
You misrepresent the issue, reply others. Cultural appropriation is not necessarily wrong; it depends on the context. Since minorities are already stigmatised in society, it adds insult to injury when white people take credit for the “cool” bits of their cultures. When appropriation reinforces deeper social problems, it has gone too far.
- Do you find Lila’s photo offensive?
- Does culture “belong” to anyone?
- Imagine you are Lila. Write a Facebook post in which you respond to the criticism.
- Come up with an example of cultural appropriation not mentioned in this article. Give a two-minute presentation to the class in which you say whether you think it is acceptable, and why.
Some People Say...
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”— Proverb
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Cultural appropriation has been happening forever. The Romans reinvented Greek myths. Late-19th-century French painters took ideas from Japanese art. Elvis Presley was both praised and criticised for “doing black music”. Some apply the term to museum exhibits that have been taken from other cultures.
- What do we not know?
- At which point legitimate cultural exchange becomes insensitive cultural theft. Few would describe our democratic system, which takes ideas from the Ancient Greeks, as an unacceptable case of appropriation. But most would agree that blacking up is not OK. So where to draw the line? Some argue that the historical relationship between the adopting and the adopted culture is key. Others say that it’s all about the spirit in which you do it. What do you think?
- Braid Bar
- The salon has been here before: in January, black DJ Clara Amfo called it out for “not representing” black women on its Instagram page.
- Identity politics
- An approach to politics that is determined by one’s membership of certain groups: racial, sexual, etc. Its supporters say that identity politics has given a voice to marginalised causes. Its critics argue that it is divisive, and wrongly implies that cultural practices “belong” to certain types of people.
- African-influenced collection
- Valentino caused further grief by describing the collection as “primitive, tribal” — words that reinforce stereotypes about Africa.
- Bronze head
- In the caption accompanying his work, Hirst credits the 14th-century Ori Olokun sculpture for inspiration. But critics argue that this does not do enough to balance out his act of appropriation.
- Chav-themed parties
- Cultural appropriation can apply to class as well.
- Save traditions
- For example, writer W. David Marx has argued that Japanese designers have “protected and strengthened” types of American fashion by adopting and elaborating on them.