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Cultural appropriation: A learning experience

When it comes to the discussion of diversity, it’s a learning experience. As a black queer woman, I’m passionate about equality and inclusion, aware of prejudice, and the importance of respecting cultures. Having conversations, reading books, and now writing about some of the many issues within our society, I find that I still have a lot to learn. A difficult part of doing this is identifying where I have been part of the problem.

Many of us look back on our younger years and regret some of the things we’ve done. There are often memories, anecdotes, or diary entries we’d rather forget. Something that stays with me is the time I was unintentionally guilty of cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of customs, practices and ideas of one people or society by members of another, typically more dominant, people or society. Because my education was very white-centric, like many people in the UK, I didn’t have a great understanding of other cultures growing up, or the dangers of appropriation. The books I read and films I watched were mostly based on white characters and culture. Engrossed in what I could do to fit in with my peers, I had little thought of what about me stood out. I didn’t explore my own culture, let alone others that were foreign to me. 

When I suddenly became part of a ‘blended family’ at age 12, my British Indian stepmother quickly introduced me to the culture by way of food. I instantly loved the cuisine, and still try to replicate many of her dishes today. But, as a studious and introverted teenager, I spent more time in my room than learning from my stepmother how to cook or about anything else from her culture. 

I did, however, become intrigued by the attire worn by Indian women on special occasions. I decided I wanted to wear one of the beautiful, midriff-baring outfits, adorned with a rich gold trimming to my leavers’ dance. My stepmother agreed and took me to Brick Lane market where we trawled from shop to shop looking for the perfect fabric. Once my measurements were taken and the matching shoes, jewellery, and bag bought, we went home, and I looked forward to impressing my peers. Not once in this time do I recall having a conversation with my stepmum about what this dress – a lehnga – signified in Indian history or culture. 

Was my ignorance founded on teenage self-absorption or was I lacking in the education to truly understand the implications of cultural appreciation? Although my stepmother was happy to share this part of her culture with me, I was only thinking of the compliments that I would receive from my friends, how this outfit would not only make me stand out, but fit in. 

Now at 31 years old, advocating for the value of diversity, I wanted to dig deeper into the cultural appropriation debate, and my understanding of the issue. Examples of my teenage line of thinking are frequently seen in society today. The bindi has become a popular fashion accessory for people to wear to festivals. Variations of bindis are sold online as face gems’, targeted at party-goers who created a ‘craze’, but have no interest in their history. In fact, the bindi has a lot of significance to the women who wear it in (predominantly) South Asia. And while the likes stream in on Instagram, mainstream TV shows are making racist jokes about them

Only recently, when discovering my prom outfit in the loft, did I research the dress’s history. Now I know that Indian dressing styles are marked by many religious and regional variations, featuring a wide choice of textures and styles, and the lehnga is an attire that has been worn by women since the Mughal era. It was once very popular among royalty but has since become an outfit that transcends social status. 

I’ve learned that wearing such clothing, or any other adornments, is only really acceptable when invited by people of that culture into a celebration or an occasion in which it belongs. Granted, my stepmother was happy for me to wear the lehnga, perhaps even excited by the prospect of my interest in her traditions. But wider concerns arise when permission is not granted, respect is not shown, and the genuine credit is not provided. 

This is often seen with the appropriation of traditionally black hairstyles. Take the recent New York fashion show where designer Marc Jacobs had his cast of predominantly white models (42 of 52) wear faux locs, a hairstyle with a complex history. Marc Jacobs received a huge backlash, yet his response to critics on social media - “All who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race of skin colour wearing their hair in a particular style or manner – funny how you don’t criticize women of colour for straightening their hair” - further perpetuates the issue. 

The history of black hair is rooted in more than just fashion statements. And there is still a stigma that sees black people sent home from school and fired from jobs, because they are ‘against uniform policy’ or ‘unprofessional’. While white celebrities continue to be praised and hailed fashion icons for wearing their black hairstyles, when black people (typically) wear them they are judged and often ostracised. European beauty standards propagate that the surest way to get a job or fit into social circles is to straighten hair to better resemble a European aesthetic. But pointing this out has not really challenged the deeper biases held in society today.

So how can true change occur? As I scroll through multiple articles, tweets, and Youtube videos about the latest act of cultural appropriation, and the droves of responses in defence of them, one thing becomes clear; there’s been little progress. Rather than a teaching opportunity, the call-out culture has become a ‘trend’. Instead of a scope for learning, defence and minimisation of the broader discussion have taken precedent. 

I have learned that cultural appropriation is not a black and white issue. It can be committed by anyone, but is fundamentally harmful because it embodies the historical exploitation of minorities. Twitter storms of anger and accusations won’t eliminate institutional racism unless we also seek to educate. Ultimately, endorsing better representation in the media and more diverse education within schools, workplaces, and at home will give future generations the opportunity for a better understanding of and respect for cultures outside of their own.

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