Chapters 10 and 11 

Chapter 10, What is cultural appropriation? 

Oluo describes her delight at finding an African restaurant in an airport during a frenzied work trip and her disappointment at discovering that the restaurant serves American food amid African décor. She then introduces the notion of “cultural appropriation,” which she defines as a dominant culture’s integrating the attractive parts of a minority culture into its own framework. The act is distinguished from cultural appreciation in that it disproportionately benefits the majority culture while harming the minority one. Rap music is an example of how Black culture has been appropriated, not appreciated. Rap music had little artistic credibility until white artists began imitating it. Their popularity and financial success constitute cultural appropriation of a Black art form. She contrasts that with what it means to truly love rap as a Black cultural art form while recognizing that one personally does not share in that culture’s history or context. 

Chapter 11, Why can’t I touch your hair? 

Oluo is at dinner celebrating a job promotion with her new coworkers when her director asks whether her hair is real. The conversation then turns to the horrors and expenses of Black hair care, although Oluo is the only Black person there. Oluo straightened her hair for decades before allowing it to grow out naturally in her thirties, and she resents the fact that a white man feels that he has the right to approve or disapprove of her decision about how to style her hair. Black people’s hair is considered mysterious because it’s not mainstream, like white people’s hair. So white people want to touch it, often without permission. After reviewing the fairly obvious reasons people do not want to have their hair touched, Oluo describes how unwanted hair touching extends the systemic disrespect and injustice that are endemic in a socially unjust society. First, Black people in America have historically been treated as property. Unwanted hair touching violates a Black person’s bodily autonomy, extending the notion that they can be treated as a white person’s property. Second, white has been the standard by which Americans judge beauty and worth. The curiosity that motivates the touching is rooted in a perception that Black people are exotic and different because white bodies are the norm. So Black people, like everyone else, have the right to vehemently reject unwanted violations of the self, even if a white person is curious about how their hair feels. 


Culture is a nebulous topic that is hard to define but that is also deeply personal. Many aspects of our lives contribute to what we consider our culture. Clothing, jewelry, hairstyles, songs, dances, holidays, rituals, and food can all have cultural significance. America takes pride in being a land where many cultures intermingle, and aspects of various cultures are woven into American life. For example, Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Oktoberfest and eat Chinese, Mexican, and Italian cuisines. But such cultural mixtures are somewhat superficial and heavily Americanized. Although Americans might celebrate Halloween by wearing a sombrero and painting their faces with a skull, most Americans do not have a personal history with the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos. The day lacks the memory and experience of visiting the graves of one’s ancestors, cooking dishes with ingredients culled from their gardens, or singing and dancing to keep their spirits at bay. This personal experience with a culture distinguishes an understanding or appreciation of the culture from a lived experience of it. Therefore, when people adopt a culture’s symbols, people should be aware of and sensitive to the symbols’ meaning. 

Cultural appropriation is different from cultural appreciation in at least three ways. First, cultural appropriation involves a financial component. White rappers gain an enormous following and generate massive sales of their records, concert tickets, and merchandise. They do so by appropriating an art form that has its roots in West Africa oral culture as transformed by the comfort and outlet that rhythm and language provided enslaved people. This money is not re-invested in communities of color. It does not help educate minority children, foster Black artists, or generate wealth for Black and brown communities. Second, culturally appropriated symbols are divorced from their intent or significance in ways that are disrespectful to the symbols, the culture, and the people who honor both. Americans have very strong feelings, for example, about their flag and rarely tolerate any damage done to it or disrespect shown to it. Nevertheless, white Americans often adorn themselves with objects that have religious significance in other cultures, while paying little regard to whether these objects are being placed and treated with reverence. Finally, cultural objects gain significance over time for reasons that are often rooted in struggle, deprivation, or even violence. Clearly, it is disrespectful and hurtful to use a song, a dance, clothing, or a holiday for simple celebratory purposes when that object originated in the death or suffering of one’s ancestors.