Tension and divide surrounding cultural appropriation


Brewing tensions revolving around cultural appropriation on a national level recently have lead to discussions within the Jones community and a debate on what’s offensive and what’s acceptable.

After hosting the VMAs on Aug. 30, Miley Cyrus received a lot of criticism for wearing a dread weave that mimicked locks, being called out on many social medias as an example of cultural appropriation. This was the first time many Americans were hearing the term cultural appropriation, and since then many still remain unaware of what it is. In short, cultural appropriation can be defined as, “when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own.” However, a deeper understanding of cultural appropriation refers to, “a power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.”

This has become a large issue to some, as Karsyn Terry ‘17 puts it: “When the fashion industry grew, aspects of black culture, along with many minorities, were taken and turned into statements suddenly considered beautiful or high couture, while the minorities were judged and deemed unattractive for that same tradition for thousands of years. Cultural appropriation says to us (minorities) that we are unworthy, and only dominant cultures can make us adequate” Case in point: When actress Zendaya wore locks on the red carpet, she was described by E! Fashion Police Giuliana Rancic as smelling like “patchouli oil and weed,” but in the past Cyrus and Kylie Jenner’s locks have been deemed by many on social media as “beautiful” and “edgy.”

Cat O’Donahue ‘17 has dreadlocks and is a Caucasian girl. O’Donahue has looked into the history and debate surrounding cultural appropriation, especially after the incident with Cyrus at the VMAs and personally being criticized for having locks.

“I did research because I hate feeling like I am hurting other people with my appearance. I am very aware of the issues with cultural appropriation, and how it is offensive. Miley Cyrus is an excellent example of how offensive cultural appropriation can be, but there is a difference between putting in a ponytail weave made of dreadlocks, and actually living with the dreadlocks like I do. I cannot take out my hair whenever I want, I live with them.”

O’Donohue said she is apart of “counter culture,” which rejects social norms, and “is not apart of any particular culture.”

“It stems its roots from Rastafarian culture, which was not for any specific race. I have spiritual reasons for getting my dreads. Also, I just don’t want to brush my hair, it’s easier.” O’Donohue said, “I am in no way trying to be offensive. I completely recognize that cultural appropriation is an issue. White people adopting black culture is an issue, but dreadlocks are not a part of that.”

A friend of O’Donohue’s, Yori Mohorn ‘17, has locks as an African American girl and is not offended by O’Donohue’s hair at all.

“It’s not that serious, if dreads were actually redeemed in the black culture it could be serious, but they’re not,” Mohorn said.

There are also feelings of fear that being Caucasian and wearing locks can give people an excuse to bully O’Donohue and her friend, Margaux Reifman ‘17, another Caucasian girl who has chosen to style her hair in locks.

O’Donohue said, “I am afraid to walk around the school. I am constantly paranoid, not just in Jones, everywhere I go. I receive stares and comments on how ugly and offensive my hair is to them.”

At which point Reifman spoke up and commented, “I am afraid to be here (fourth floor of new building) after the bell rings,” People have commented negative messages on social media in response to her hair previously, making her concerned about her safety at school. 

Black Student Union president, Terry, on the other hand pointed out that African American people live with the oppression and disapproving views from society, and when Caucasian people adopt their culture without doing anything to help change the way African Americans are viewed in society it is “hypocritical.” Adopting black culture, while “saying how bad they (African Americans) are, doesn’t add up.”

“You can’t take the culture, but continue to discriminate the culture’s people. Black people cannot get jobs because they dress a certain way, or have dreadlocks, but the fashion industry took it and suddenly it’s okay because of white people,” Terry said.

Terry is “annoyed”, and feels like people who appropriate cultures, “don’t understand why people would be bothered by it”. She wants people to understand that the people who own the cultures you appropriate are being shunned, but those appropriating the cultures aren’t. Taking their culture makes them feel “even more powerless.”

The awareness of the issue of cultural appropriation, or even what it is within the Jones community is described by Terry as, “very limited.”

“Most are uneducated on the topic,” said Terry. “A lot of people walk around ignorant, confusing cultural appropriation with cultural appreciation.”

In an anonymous poll collected from the Jones student body, 48 out of 74 students answered “No” when asked the question, “Do you find it offensive when Caucasians wear dreadlocks?” Additionally, 17 out of the 26 students who answered “Yes” to this question were African American.


ALAS sponsor, Mr. Ernesto Saldivar, made it clear that cultural appropriation is far more than just locks and offending the African American culture. It spreads across many cultures, yoga, for example, has become a fad in America. It is a way to relax and stretch, but to Hindu culture, yoga is a sacred practice that is part of their religion and a form of prayer. This attitude and behavior can lead to “an intentional or unintentional mocking of the original culture.” Saldivar also pointed out a common form of cultural appropriation that occurs during Halloween, when people may dress up as the stereotype of a particular culture.

“You can take off your sombrero and poncho and be done with it, dissociated from it. But for me, they (these stereotypes) remain present after I take them off.” Saldivar said.

The disconnect, and general lack of understanding that Jones may have with this issue is a “clear misunderstanding of culture and students,” according to Saldivar. It’s the “high school mentality that has lead to a disconnect between what people of color go through and the way white people act.”