If you were to look up the definition of “black” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, you would find a range of interesting definitions. Most of these have something to do with the word as it relates to the color spectrum, but others are even more enlightening.
Some of these definitions show the word’s connotation with phrases such as “thoroughly sinister or evil,” and “characterized by hostility or angry discontent.”
For some black students on campus, this kind of connection could be attributed to the white supremacy of western culture, especially when it comes to the appropriation of clothing, hair, and style within the black community.
“There’s a fine line between appreciation and appropriation,” says senior Sociology and Critical Diversities Studies major Sarah Toutant, “[and for the black community] it’s almost complete appropriation.”
Another student, senior Fine Arts major Aja Wiley, seemed to agree with that sentiment, explaining how when white people wear traditional “black” styles, such as locks or bantu knots, or even in some cases African dashiki styled garments, it’s seen as trendy, but when the same styles are seen on black people, it’s “dirty.”
Wiley says she is perceived as the “token black person,” to some of her white friends, and is even sometimes told she doesn’t “act black.”
“I don’t really know what acting black is,” she says.
Caleb Smith, a senior Politics major, also has experience with the hurtful effects of appropriation. “People feeling like they are able to touch my hair without my consent, it’s sort of an example of how black people are still viewed as foreign or exotic.”
However, for Aliyah Agyei, a Media Studies major and British exchange student in the Jesuit Education Exchange Program (JEEP), the perspective is a little different.
Agyei said that she is often told that she doesn’t act black either, but for her, it’s a compliment. “Black girls here seem very friendly and approachable. In London, a lot of the black people seem intimidating and scary.” When pressed about whether she finds this stereotyping offensive, she doesn’t seem to. “[I] find it more humorous than offensive. It’s nice to prove somebody wrong.”
Of course, this doesn’t excuse the hurtful effects appropriation can have in the U.S.
“We see that clothing can be very holy,” says Smith, “[when you appropriate], you don’t know what that’s used for, what that means to people.”
For instance, sophomore Dance major Danielle Smith finds offense when people use the term “dreads” or “dreadlocks” instead of just “locks.”
“Our hair is naturally like that, it’s not dreadful.” Continuing, she explains how the process of locking one’s hair is referred to as “twisting,” which over time naturally will lock because of the hair’s texture.
Toutant seems to agree, adding “The thing a lot of people don’t understand is that it’s not just hair. Black men and women are demonized over these hairstyles,” she says.
Some people may feel like these issues are already being dealt with. If the #blacklivesmatter movement and #BlackOutDay on Tumblr are so popular in the media, does that mean these struggles are coming to an end?
“I feel like it’s a trend, especially here in San Francisco,” says Danielle Smith about the mainstream conversation around struggles the black community faces. She remembers when the Baltimore protests were in full force, and how she even feels that USF professors “don’t even care, to be honest. The teachers here at USF did nothing and just went on with class, and that can be really hard [for me] because they are trying to teach me about public speaking or something, but all I can think about is what I saw on the news like twenty minutes ago.”
Toutant, the current president of USF’s Black Student Union, agreed with the idea of people thinking these struggles are a “trend,” particularly when it comes to large events that the BSU has held, such as the “die-in” last Fall.
“The whole entire room was filled with people. They were filming me, there were cameras. Where was all this attention the rest of the year? Police brutality has been going on for years. Where was the attention then?”
“This is not something to just hop on and be done with when you’re done. This is something we have to wake up with everyday.” Adding to that, Toutant says that it’s popular for white people to want to act black and wear black styles, but not to actually have to deal with the racism and struggles that black people face.
There are things that you can do, however, to be an ally. Listen to what people in marginal communities say. If you’re unsure about whether something you may be wearing or doing is appropriation, don’t be afraid to ask. “Not every black person is the same. Not every white person is the same,” says Toutant. “When we start to generalize, that’s when things go wrong.”
Photo courtesy of Emily Pinnell-Stewart