If you walk into any home in America that houses someone of African descent, you’re likely to find a silk hair wrap. For generations, silk scarves have held a special place as the hair care staple of Black households: think childhood bedtime routine memories, sleepovers full of teenage girls giggling in their bonnets, our mothers’ top packing priority anytime we planned a trip away. So last year, when a white woman announced an “innovative ” new silk scarf that would protect hair at night, the Black community was left scratching their metaphorical heads at the deep disconnect from reality.
Canadian founder Sarah Marantz Lindenberg said she initially launched NiteCap to answer a problem that needed solving, but besides its commendable sustainability claims (“handmade in Canada at a female-owned and operated garment production company with all-natural silk”), her line of $74 headscarves did the same job that silk scarves and bonnets have been doing in the Black community for centuries—for nearly seven times the price. (A quick trip to any New York City beauty supply store will leave your pocket no more than $11 lighter when buying a night scarf.)
Online backlash against Lindenberg and her lack of associating her product with its history ensued. She was labeled an appropriator by several people of color on social media. Various Black scholars were also vocal about the history of the product and practice, demanding the tradition of wearing silk scarves as hair protection not be given the same “discovered by a white person” treatment reminiscent of the native land of the Americas. But a lot of white women, white entrepreneurs especially, were perplexed by the Black community’s reaction. Was the problem that she didn’t give enough credit to the head scarf’s nuanced history on her website? Was the problem that she didn’t have a Black co-founder? Or was the problem that she launched the product in the first place? My answer is twofold:
First, she did not incorporate or acknowledge the history and culture of the product.
Let’s look at the ongoing and nauseating colonial remnants of “discovery.” Columbus sailed upon the Americas in 1492 and more than 500 years later, we still credit him for the discovery of an entire land and the people who already lived on it. What does this narrative say of the millions of Indigenous people who loved, sowed, reaped, sang, prayed, played, lived, and died on the land before him? Were their lives non-existent until the white gaze gave them their identity? And why do we still teach America’s history this way to our children?
Second, by appropriating and capitalizing on Black culture, she further marginalized the oppressed group.
There is a saying that goes “Ghetto until proven fashionable.” From gold hoop earrings to long acrylic nails and cornrow braids, various aspects of everyday Black culture often start with derogatory criticism until the white gaze finds value in and ultimately capitalizes on it. In 2014, there was Khloe Kardashian putting bantu knots in her hair, meanwhile, a nine-year-old student was told her own afro puffs were “unacceptable” and violated the school dress code. In 2016 there was Marc Jacobs sending white models down the runway in dreadlocks, despite Black women being discriminated against for the same “unprofessional” hairstyle. In 2017, there was the Gucci vs. Dapper Dan controversy, where the conversation of appropriation was jolted into the mainstream after several fans of the Harlem designer recognized his style of clothing walking down the Gucci runway. Eventually, Gucci partnered directly with Dapper Dan and many viewed this as a “gift” from the Italian fashion house, but in reality, it was what was owed to him for the value that Gucci reaped from his intellectual property and unofficial creative consultation. And then in 2019, there was the Sephora and Moschino collaboration for an office supply-themed makeup line that was a direct replication of The Crayon Case beauty brand founded by Raynell “Supa Cent” Steward.
In Lindenberg’s response to the media storm that criticized her for claiming NiteCap as a new innovation, she stated: “I was looking for a product that fit my own personal use.” We can all empathize with that plight, of wanting something a little different to whatever is currently on the market. After all, don’t we all look for something customized? But the issue here isn’t that she created her own version of an African silk headscarf, it’s that she turned it into a capitalist pursuit, seeking profit off African American daily life—a classic example of cultural appropriation.
Here, the cultural implications hit even deeper, with headscarves having ties to Black enslavement. In 1786, in an effort to control the bodies of Black women, the U.S. government implemented tignon laws after it became apparent that European men were attracted to creole women in Louisiana. Seen as a threat to the white women of the country, Black women were required to wear headscarves as a signifier of their “slave class” social status—whether they were enslaved or not.
The history of appropriation is oftentimes traumatic. For communities who witness the building blocks of their culture stolen (a culture they are so often oppressed for), it can be crippling to see that capitalized on—as I suppose it’s often meant to be; power structures are maintained this way. The concept of “discovery” (whether it applies to fashion, music, beauty or culture at large) is part of the same colonizing language of the likes of Columbus, whose “discovery” led to the slaughter of thousands, who, let me remind you, had already been existing quite well before his “findings”.
Ask yourself: How did this particular thing I want to sell (or “reinvent”) even come into existence?
For all the cis, white entrepreneurs reading this, I urge you to recognize that appropriation is a tool of supremacy and in essence, a “power play”. It’s the adoption of traditional practices, objects, or images by a person or group that is not part of the originating culture. Cultural appropriation can become problematic when it is done without permission, serves to benefit the dominant group, and erases or further marginalizes the oppressed group. In this way, cultural appropriation can and does recreate larger structures of inequality.
So what role do we play in preserving each other’s cultures, and how can white founders show up in partnership and as allies in the world of business? Consider the bigger picture. Alongside customary “product-market fit” research, invest your time and money into cultural considerations of your product or service. Ask yourself: How did this particular thing I want to sell (or “reinvent”) even come into existence? Whose culture developed—and has depended on—this product or service before me? Do I or others on my team hold any privileges over that specific group (i.e. race, class, ability, etc.)? Should I be the one to honor what they already introduced to the world? How can I ensure that I share profit with the ones who set the stage for this product in the first place? How can I give credit where credit is due?
Investors play an active and intentional role in this as well. For funders deciding where to put your capital, ask yourself: Is there a woman of color already doing this and perhaps doing it better? Can this money be invested into marginalized women of color who, no doubt, are having a harder time accessing resources? Does my board of directors offer a voice for people who exist differently than me? What voices are missing from my table?
Lindberg, for her part, decided to put Nitecap on pause and is researching the possibility of transferring the business to a Black owner. While critical considerations like this will look different for every founder (some may have BIPOC employees who would be adversely affected by a shutdown, for example), this is the beginning of a major reckoning in how white entrepreneurs are showing up in business, who they’re appropriating from, and off what culture they’re making their money. Take White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo, whose anti-racism work makes up the bulk of her income. Should she be giving a majority of that revenue to Black organizations actually in the trenches of doing anti-racism work—rather than intellectualizing it as she does? I’m not here to tell people what to do, but I am here to make you think more critically.
The desire to develop business not only in the name of capital development—but also in the name of community—is what I consider the very basic expectation for those pursuing business opportunities. Patriarchal and racist systems that were put into place centuries ago continue to affect how all of us live; these systems give some people a leg-up in opportunity (think men and the gender gap) and others a barriered pathway (think inner-city kids and underfunded school systems). So before you launch your next product, service, or brand, I want you to think critically about the role your venture is playing in the big picture of community, care, and accountability. If you realize your business will profit—or is currently profiting—off appropriation, stop and consider your responsibility in both dismantling systemic oppression and building an inclusive economy. That is what true accountability looks like.