Have you ever heard of cultural appropriation? The bottom line is it’s a modern euphemism for theft of different elements from one culture into another. I appreciate that cultural appropriation can be a very challenging and confusing issue for some to understand but one simple illustration is the adoption of rap music into white culture in the late 1900’s. Rap music initially emerged as a result of the civil rights movement in America essentially as a way to bring attention to important social issues solely within the black community.
But today the number of Caucasian rappers is growing, with the likes of Eminem and Mac Miller essentially attempting to mimic the sound, persona and even copying their ‘cool’ style; wearing baggy jeans and hip-hop chains. All of which were introduced by the initial wave of black rappers. This look which they have “borrowed” is not a good look for these people to portray by merely latching on, taking the image and promoting it for their own benefit to gain financially and in popularity within the music industry. Culture is appropriated every single day.
Things we may see daily such as dreadlocks and tribal tattoos are also a form of cultural appropriation, one which people use to express themselves without knowing they have stolen this element from another culture. Ultimately they are expressing the views of that particular culture or religion in the end, not themselves. Today, people can be seen wearing saris and Muslim hijabs and they seem to think of it as a fashion “trend”. Hijabs are not a “trend” for Muslims. They form part of their religious traditions.
You wouldn’t wear a cross if you weren’t a Christian, would you? Mainstream retailers such as Topshop and Urban Outfitters feature a cross on many of their jewellery products. This has appealed to today’s generation as it is deemed to be stylish, regardless of whether the consumer happens to live by the values of Christianity. Nowadays cultural appropriation tends to take place in more subtle ways, ways that may seem so insignificant to people that they aren’t aware they are appropriating culture at all; fashion is a common example of this.
People express themselves through the way they look and the clothes that they wear; it has always been this way. Imagine a music festival. The Californian music festival, Coachella, for example attracts lots and lots of celebrities each year, wearing what they think is appropriate to fit the festival vibe. Including things like Native American headdresses and Aztec prints to bindis and kimonos being worn at the festival, this is one trend that refuses to die. For these people who choose to wear these things it’s simply because they see it as nothing but a ‘trendy’ fashion statement.
As the bindi can symbolise many different things in the Hindu culture, from the very beginning it has always been most commonly worn to represent a married woman. But in the religion the bindi is said to be the third eye which can be used to ward away bad luck. When celebrities such as Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez were seen at the festival wearing bindis an anonymous woman started the #ReclaimTheBindi campaign in the hope of educating people that her culture is not a fashion accessory and that she isn’t just wearing ‘a pretty face jewel’.
During the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show in 2012 Victoria’s Secret model Karlie Kloss was criticised for wearing a Native American headdress whilst strutting down runway in skimpy underwear. Some were not fazed by this but others were deeply offended as the cultural meaning behind the headdress was clearly not considered when Victoria’s Secret used it as a fashion ‘accessory’; essentially degrading and trashing the image that Native Americans portray. Only the most powerful in the tribe wear the headdress therefore it is symbolic to the culture in the sense that it represents honour and bravery for the Native Americans.
After realising that they had clearly offended many by this, the international company released an apology stating that they had no intention of hurting or offending anyone. And they made the decision to take this particular outfit out of the show completely. There are too many things wrong with cultural appropriation for it to be acceptable in today’s society. Firstly, it trivialises violent historical oppression. When people have been targeted by another group of people through things such as genocide and slavery the past trauma will haunt generations for years to come.
Therefore when people appropriate culture and use it as a fashion accessory they are essentially mocking and belittling what those people experienced as a result of their culture. The Native Americans didn’t suffer British colonisation for us non-native Americans to prance around wearing headdresses in 2016. People who follow and practise the Hindu religion don’t wear bindis because they ‘look pretty’ they wear them because it is significant to their culture, not others. To some people this may not seem like a good enough reason to stop wearing their favourite headdress or bindi but I personally think it should be.
Dr. Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations once said: “You are pretending to be a race that you are not, and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so. ” For example: pop singer, Katy Perry performed as a geisha during the 2013 American Music Awards, completely misinterpreting what she thought she was honouring. As a result of the 5. 75 million viewers that tuned in to the awards, she ended up using her platform as a way to perpetuate negative stereotypes about Asian women.
Another problem with cultural appropriation is that it makes things ‘cool’ for white people but ‘too ethnic’ for people of different ethnic backgrounds. An example of this would be when ex- Disney channel star, Zendaya wore dreadlocks to the 2015 Academy Awards. Almost instantly she was bombarded with comments and suffocated by stereo-types from Giuliana Rancic of “E! ’s fashion police” — an American television series featuring panellists commenting on celebrity fashions — saying that Zendaya probably “smells of patchouli oil or weed” just because Zendaya is an actress of colour.
Compare this to when another ex-Disney channel star, Miley Cyrus wore dreadlocks to the 2015 VMA’S (Video Music Awards) and nobody batted an eyelid, solely because Miley Cyrus is part of a dominant culture, whereas Zendaya is not. Everybody thought Miley was being ‘trendy and edgy’ with her hair-styling choice, but did not think the same of Zendaya. From 2013 the fashion world began to adopt black hairstyles from black culture; essentially making it popular culture.
Cornrows and braids were beginning to be seen on high fashion runways such as Alexander McQueen and some magazines even had editorial campaigns featuring cornrows, labelling them as a new ‘urban’ hairstyle. Having dreadlocks or an afro hairstyle — even in 2016 — is deemed as unprofessional even though braids and cornrows are not merely stylistic. They are necessary to keep black textured hair healthy and manageable, and these can be some of the most natural ways for black people to do so. Ultimately, cultural appropriation is a by-product of oppression and racism.
As the majority of the people appropriating cultures aren’t very well educated on the subject, they are promoting oppression without even knowing it. In my opinion cultural appropriation is and will always be inappropriate. Yes the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is always going to be blurred but the next time you think about wearing a bindi or a sari as a fashion accessory, bearing in mind that you cannot fully appreciate something unless you fully understand it. Ask yourself the question; am I appropriating or appreciating culture?