Cultural appropriation. We’ve all heard of it by now. The white people are annoyed about it being brought up, the people of color are angered about being used. So, what’s the big deal about wearing some braids???? Well, cultural appropriation is a problem because it exploits the cultures of many groups of minorities.
Defining Cultural Appropriation
There’s many different definitions, but the one I believe defines it correctly is Cambridge Dictionary: “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” Key part is without showing that you understand or respect this culture. A more in depth definition comes from the article What is Cultural Appropriation and Why is it Wrong? It quotes the author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, stating cultural appropriation as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”
White Culture (US)
I’m not going to make a joke about white people not having culture, because they do! But me, as a black person, can’t necessarily appropriate it. Appropriation is ultimately about power, which is explained in the article, 5 Reasons People of Color Cannot Appropriate White Culture in the US: “Cultural appropriation refers to a specific power dynamic where members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people that they continue to systematically oppress.” The power aspect is what truly makes appropriation harmful. It’s a commodity of white supremacy.
As the source stated earlier says, “Dominant culture – so in the case of the US, White culture – is the one that is perceived as normal, as part of the status quo. It’s an ever present part of everyone’s reality, no matter their background.” Dominant culture is something that is inescapable. It is what is deemed as the “standard” in society. It was and is imposed on all of us. A person can’t appropriate something that was forced upon them. Appropriation involves taking.
“But like, why can’t we all just share??”
Well, if it were only that easy, we would! The reason it’s not that easy to share is because people of color tend to be taken advantage of while trying to achieve this. From the same source as before, “The problem with appropriation isn’t that people are incorporating aspects of other cultures into their everyday life — from what they wear, what they eat, and what they consume. Rather, its the complete erasure of historical context and the total disregard of oppression experienced and endured throughout history.” The culture of many people of color then gets assimilated into mainstream, western culture and often white people will benefit off it and people of color will lose significance of their culture. Nandra Kareem Nittle states in What is Cultural Appropriation and Why is it Wrong?: “Art and music forms that originated with minority groups come to be associated with members of the dominant group. As a result, the dominant group is deemed innovative and edgy, while the disadvantaged groups they “borrow” from continue to face negative stereotypes that imply they’re lacking in intelligence and creativity. In addition, when members of a dominant group appropriate the cultures of others, they often reinforce stereotypes about minority groups.” Sharing can never really be good, clean, fun if there’s the inequality aspect.
It also might seem petty to be arguing about these things now. The reason it has become a hot topic in recent years is because more and more minority groups are reclaiming things that have been stolen from them and are speaking out on the unfairness of appropriation. Zing Tsjeng quotes fashion writer Raisa Bhuiyan in the article What Not to Wear to a Festival: ” ‘When a non-South Asian person wears the bindi, it is generally seen as edgy and cute… But when someone like me or my mum wears the bindi out in public, we are stared down with dirty looks [or] told to go back to where we came from.’ ” Cultural appropriation supports racism. It is a system that promotes the idea that white people “do it better.” But when something is represented in it’s true, formal meaning by people of the culture, like a bindi, it is dismissed and often ridiculed.
Examples of Cultural Appropriation
A serious culprit of cultural appropriation is Kylie Jenner. She is seen as trendy and innovative with her style, from “boxer braids” (they’re cornrows) to do-rags, to grillz. Magazines give praise to white girls like Kylie for “sporting new, hot trends” but half of the things white people have apparently started have been staple styles of the black community for decades. Taryn Finley, author of the article 1o Times Black Culture Was Appropriated in 2015 , informs us on this: “The Jenner sister wore faux dreadlocks for a Teen Vogue cover story and she was heralded as edgy, raw and beautiful. However, when Zendaya wore the same hairstyle, at the Oscars in February, “Fashion Police” host Giuliana Rancic said she looked like she “smells like patchouli oil or weed.” Although Zendaya responded with the utmost class, this is just another example of white women being praised for the same styles black women are derided for.” Whether or not white people can wear dreadlocks is a huge debate, but dreads have definitely been a very prominent part of black culture and have given a way for black people to truly showcase and style their natural hair. The crucial problem about this is that minorities get degraded for sporting their own culture by the very people who are using it. Since forever blacks have been marginalized for their hairstyles, hair textures, and clothing. But once the dominant group wears it themselves, it’s acceptable and cute. This shows the negative effect appropriation has on minorities. The problem isn’t directly the act of white people wearing cornrows or dreads, but the repercussions it has on the black community when they do.
More examples of cultural appropriation is this wave of “festival fashion” such as headdresses, bindis, and henna.
“The headdress is a spiritual item reserved for revered elders. As Simon Moya-Smith, a journalist and citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, put it: ‘Wearing one, even an imitation headdress, belittles what our elders have spent a lifetime to earn.’ Remember people complaining to the BBC when a University Challenge contestant wore a jacket with military medals, the idea being that it’s kind of disrespectful to walk around in stripes you haven’t earned? Same principle” (Tsjeng).
‘The bindi on the forehead is an ancient tradition in Hinduism and has religious significance,’ Rajan Zedd, the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, explained in a statement. ‘It is not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory aiming at mercantile greed.’ Ps. You are not exempt from this because you once took a three-day yoga course on Palolem Beach” (Tsjeng).
“The artform of henna, called mehndi in Hindi and Urdu, has been practiced for thousands of years in India, Africa, Pakistan, and the Middle East.”
“Henna is most commonly a wedding tradition among Muslim and Hindi brides, but is worn during special occasions as well. Prior to a Hindi wedding, a gathering is held for the bride and the women in her family to have their henna done professionally. The bride’s arms and feet are embellished with symbolic and historical designs that are meant to demonstrate the love and strength the bride will have in marriage. This custom holds great cultural significance in Hinduism as it is said that the darker the henna, the deeper the love within the marriage” (Oberlender).
Headdresses are 100% unacceptable to wear unless you are Native American and have deserved the honor. But there are occasions where bindis and henna are acceptable to wear:
- If it’s a part of your culture, obviously
- If you are apart of a traditional Hindu (or any group of people that wears henna/bindis) wedding or ceremony
- For henna, if it’s done by a person of West/North African or South Asian descent for celebratory purposes
- If someone of that culture welcomes you in on a different occasion I might have missed
Another thing to keep in mind is you may have a friend that comes from a certain ethnic background, but doesn’t know much about their culture. Your token brown friend does not give you the right to do anything you want. If that is the case, it’s better to talk to someone who is educated and immersed into that culture before doing anything you’re unsure about.
How to Appreciate, Not Appropriate
Buy from stores owned by minorities:
If you want to wear a dashiki (traditional West African garment) learn about the clothing and buy from an African-owned business. You then are showing you appreciate the African culture directly. You are also supporting their business, therefore, giving credit where credit is due.
If you’re visiting the country in which the culture originated:
If you are visiting somewhere like Pakistan, wearing a hijab is respectful because hijabs are a standard in their culture for women. Therefore, that would be appreciation.
Eating the food from other cultures is the best! But it’s easy to love the food, not the people who made it. An example of this is Middle Eastern food like hummus and falafel. They have become so popular in Western countries, yet so many people who enjoy it don’t understand the problems of islamophobia or don’t speak out about it. Another example is with Mexican food. So many enjoy their food but still tell Mexicans they are lazy and should leave the United States. Rachel Kuo writes in another one of her articles Feminist Guide to Being a Foodie Without Being Culturally Appropriative, “Eating food from another culture in isolation from that culture’s history and also current issues mean that we’re just borrowing the pieces that are enjoyable – palatable and easily digestible. In order to appreciate and not appropriate food from different cultures, people need to love and support the people as much as they do their food.”
Kuo also addresses profiting from the oppression of minorities: “More and more now, part of chefs’ culinary training also involves travel in order to learn about different cooking techniques and ingredients, and they’re opening up fancy restaurants that repurpose “cheap” eats from working class and poor communities that rely on affordable, local products and ingredients. Food culture gets re-colonized by chefs seeking to make that “authentic” street food they tried more elegant. Often, these restaurants are inaccessible to the communities they’re appropriating from.” Even something as simple as eating affects groups of people, that’s why it’s important to be aware. Support the people of the food you’re eating and buy their food directly from them and you will be appreciating their culture rather than appropriating.
We can all share once we truly get to a point of respecting each other. This means learning before doing and not crossing boundaries. The goal of pointing out cultural appropriation isn’t to create segregation, but to make sure the culture of minorities aren’t taken advantage of. Many people of ethnic cultures, especially elders, love and welcome sharing their heritage with others. The only reason there’s hostility is because many are just taking instead of valuing culture. It can be hard to tell what is acceptable and what is not, so it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as you educate yourself from them. There’s always ways we can all be better and that should be embraced. Sharing cultures is so much more beautiful when there’s meaning, honor, and togetherness.
Featured image by Pixabay