What is Cultural Appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is, in its simplest and most basic form, the act of an individual from a particular (usually privileged or dominant) culture adopting cultural/religious elements of a marginalized culture, insensibly.
In doing so, valuable cultural practices or symbols are overly simplified, stripped of their meaning and significance, and can replicate systems of oppression.
Yes, fashion can be violent too.
This is most clearly articulated when a dominant or oppressive group takes from a culture that it is oppressing (ex: white people in the USA wearing a white-washed play on traditional Native American headdresses as sexy costumes, etc.), and more complicated/difficult to identify when one marginalized group takes from another marginalized group (ex: Beyonce appropriating Indian culture in Coldplay’s music video). Both definitely remain forms of cultural appropriation, but for different reasons, and in different ways.
Within Native/Indigenous tribes of North America, headdresses were worn by men who had achieved a particular set of honors and achievements, according to Apihtawikosisan. The headdress was reserved only for a highly selective ranking of people, and held immense cultural significance; they are, in a sense, sacred.
Enter white people at Coachella or the Victoria’s Secret runway show – along with the fact that they have essentially rendered a powerful cultural symbol as a trendy costume or sexy prop, the violence in this cultural appropriation lies even further in their collective histories: the United States was built on the genocide of Native/Indigenous Americans. During the foundation of the United States – and for decades after – Indigenous people were culturally cleansed: They were forced to dress like their European colonizers, and their children were forced to attend private schools where their languages and cultures were criminalized. They were forced to hide or eradicate their cultures and clothing through settler colonialism, and now their cultural symbols continue to be stripped of value by being used as a toy or a prop. Cultural appropriation here doubly serves as reminder of legacies of colonialism but also a repetition of histories of violence and trauma.
A major key here (in my best DJ Khaled voice) is that cultural appropriation plays on historic themes of oppression and domination and does not respect the significance/value of the cultural/religious object.
Let’s take another example.
Remember that time Rihanna went to Dubai and posed in front of a Mosque? Super rad and cool right!!??!!!!
Mmm, how about not.
We’re going to file this one in the Cultural Appropriation folder right next to the file on Dolce and Gabbana’s “collection for Muslims” that I’ve ranted about in a few times. Why? Both of these do not constitute appreciation – how can you appreciate something you clearly know nothing about?
Rihanna’s hyper-sexualization of a garment made for modestly; her disregard for the sacredness of a particular space; and Dolce & Gabaana’s throwing around expensive, glamorous fabrics to act as headcovering made to reject excess superficiality is a form of appropriation, culturally and religiously.
Not to mention that another way to flag cultural appropriation is when a cultural/religious object suddenly becomes “cool” when someone from another culture adopts it. Many of the same people who were commenting “omg!!!! so cute!!!!” under Rihanna’s photos covering her hair and skin are calling Muslims terrorists and asking Muslim women if they are oppressed. (P.S. We’re not.)
In the United States, this happens far too often with Black culture. Black people in the USA are (wrongly) seen as not having culture, and yet, their culture is taken from and normalized, and appropriated by dismissing or not giving credit to Blackness as the source of the cultural practice/symbol. Take a cue from Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry (on what not to do as non-Black people): Wearing cornrows. It’s “cute” or “edgy” when white people do it, but looked down upon when Black people introduced it and continue to pull off this hairstyle beautifully.
But don’t take my word for it – let’s ask Katy Perry herself. Hey, Katy, do you culturally appropriate??
Well, there you have it folks.
Black dreadlocks are seen as “dirty” and “not work-appropriate,” but for white people they are edgy and “totally rad.” White people absorb Black culture, and in the same breath look down upon Black people who are engaging in their own cultural practices, or say they have nothing of value to contribute to society.
Appropriation has everything to do with power structures, and little to do with valuing cultural practices and attributing credit to original sources.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t be wearing *anything* that belongs to a culture that is not yours – people around the world are beautiful and are wearing/practicing wonderful things that everyone can partake in, but it is *so* important to be doing so with acute understanding of the relationship between your culture and the one you are trying not to appropriate, the significance of the cultural/religious object/practice, and constantly challenging yourself and questioning your intentions, purposes, and goals.
And for those skimmers, aka millennials, aka seriously why is your attention span so low this article is only a little more than 1000 words seriously people where is our world going, here is your TL;DR:
– The act of a dominant/privileged group adopting cultural elements of another (most likely marginalized/oppressed) culture in an insensible manner
– Plays on historic themes of oppression, domination, and privilege
– Ignores the value, significance, or meaning of the object/practice
– Does not give credit to the original culture/religion/ethnicity/etc
– Looked down upon/mocked when practiced/worn by the original marginalized culture, but becomes “cool,” “trendy,” or “edgy” when done by the oppressors/appropriators.
– Understanding the significance of a particular practice/object/tradition and not undermining or destroying its significance or value.
– Understanding histories of oppression and marginalization surrounding the particular object/practice/tradition and gauging the appropriateness of your actions in relation to this history
– Being invited by an individual of that particular culture to participate in/wear their culture’s traditions/clothing for a specific event or occasion (weddings, religious rituals, etc.)
– But word of caution here: getting a “go” pass from one of your friends doesn’t mean that other people from their culture won’t be offended. Just like you can’t use your token Black friend as an excuse to be racist, you can’t use the invitation of one Muslim to wear a headscarf for a day as an excuse to expect that the rest of us are all going to be jumping up and down and applaud you for your bravery. (Because I’m not/didn’t.)
– Ask yourself: Why am I doing this/what are my goals in doing this/can I achieve my goal without doing this?/why is this necessary/is this even necessary/no it is not necessary/alright awesome then we good.
This post originally appeared on joojooazad.com and is reprinted here with permission.
Published on BUST.com on June 22, 2017
Top photo: Katy Perry “This Is How We Do” screenshot
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