Leftovers: When OK really isn’t

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Remember when all your friends went somewhere exciting or did something new, but your mom wouldn’t let you join them?

Maybe it was hanging out at the mall or going to a concert. Maybe it was a PG-13 movie she thought was beyond your level of maturity. Often, it was a request that just didn’t feel right to her for reasons she was unable to articulate. Especially to a spirited teenager, the relentless master of debate.

Exasperated moms everywhere were reduced to grasping cliches: “If Billy jumped off a bridge would you do it, too?”

Fast forward to adulthood when we make difficult decisions weighing our inner compass of values, beliefs, experiences, pros and cons, and anything else we’ve got to move forward. Paraphrasing another cliche, I remind myself that just because something is OK to do doesn’t mean it’s OK to do it.

With that nugget looping in my brain, I was debating getting my hair braided because I’ve never done it, braids would look fresh for spring, and they’d reduce the awkwardness of growing out my hair to its now-natural color, which is silver (sounds so much better than grey). Realizing I now mirror Disney villain Cruella de Vil, my curly hair would actually look great with the black and silver strands woven together.

But would it be a great thing to do?

Black content creators on the popular app TikTok addressed that very question throughout February. I learned more from those Queens sharing historical facts and personal views during Black History Month than I ever could have anywhere else.

Most of the Black women, and some men, reinforced the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation – a key being the latter is done from a distance. Very few said it’s OK for a white woman to wear tight, intricately done box braids, which are worn with Black pride and a deep connection to identity and the Black experience. Fashion is fleeting, but for Black women, box braids never will be.

Taking the question to the very white streets of Portland, friends and former co-workers were divided, but leaned toward no braids. ”It isn’t enough to call yourself an ally,” someone I admire said. “We can’t just take what we want like we did when Black slaves were rounded up in Africa.”

“At the end of the day, it’s just hair,” said another friend. “Lots of Black women straighten their hair, or dye it, or wear wigs that could never be natural. Is that cultural appropriation?”

By this time, and all along really, I knew if I had to ask the question I was ignoring my inner compass.

Professor Lance Gibbs of the University of Southern Maine. (Courtesy USM)

So I contacted Lance Gibbs, a professor of Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of Southern Maine. In addition to sending me several documents, he shared his own opinion.

“What you should understand is, depending on geographic location, inter-group differences, socio-economic standing, education level, and so on, the idea of cultural appropriation will differ,” Gibbs said. “One has to be sensitive to their surroundings and society’s temperature to understand when to engage in a particular behavior.

“My perspective on cultural appropriation is to always err on the side of caution and engage with the side that is constantly being oppressed. Persons who are on the side of dominance are mostly shielded from the harm or offense that the act induces.”

After studying the research he sent, I reached out to one more academic I’ve known forever. Her words hit home.

“I get the braids. They would be sassy on you,” she said. “But culturally iconic things belong to that cultural group. Even the painful stuff like knowing braided hairstyles can be traced back to different tribes and villages in Africa. Also, take the yellow Star of David. Someone else can say it’s just a star, but how does the symbolism compared to that statement make you feel?”

“Your hair is so naturally curly,” she continued. “Why would you want to suppress that anyway? You used to call it your Jewfro and man, that was a lot of big, curly hair.”

Now I have to ask Gibbs about the term “Jewfro.” Is that positive assimilation or just offensive to two groups? Regardless, a yellow Star of David will never be “just a star” and box braids are a hard no for me.

It doesn’t matter if the cool kids are wearing them. Cool kids also watch TikTok, have a willingness to embrace what they learn, and finally understand what mom was unable to articulate.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].