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What is cultural appropriation?

It is a term gaining traction in a society obsessed with sharing selfies and updates on social media.  And yet, with celebrities, designers and writers increasingly being called out on their hairstyle, clothing or language, why is the line between appreciation and appropriation still being crossed again and again? And why is it so important that we stop?

What’s the issue?

To understand why cultural appropriation is an issue you must look deeper into the history of the people, as well as the oppression they have experienced. Cultural appropriation perpetuates the unfair treatment of minorities for many reasons, here are a few: it lets privileged people profit from oppressed peoples’ labour, it lets people show ‘love’ for a culture but remain prejudice against its people, and it trivialises violent oppression.

An example of this was when in 2017, fashion designer Marc Jacobs dressed his of predominantly white models (42 out of 52) in wigs appropriating locks – an African and Nubian hairstyle with historical significance. In 1930, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie’s guerrilla warriors vowed not to cut their hair until he was released from exile, making locks a powerful political statement. Modern social prejudice regarding locks has also led to kids being sent home from school and employees being fired from work, meaning that their adoption for fashion show and as a ‘trend’ was seen as insulting. 

Another high profile example was when Kim Kardashian West donned a historically African hairstyle (Fulani braids) and gave credit to white film star Bo Derek for the inspiration. There was immediate backlash. It wasn’t that Kim wore the style that had people in uproar, but the fact that society and the media praised white women for their latest braided ‘do, but when these same styles are worn by black people, who also originated them, they are perceived negatively. There is a constant erasure of black women when it comes to beauty, and cultural appropriation serves to propagate it. 

 

The emotional labour it takes for people of colour to address the cultural appropriation is exhausting and demoralising. It can be particularly harmful when defence of cultural appropriation includes retorts such as ‘you’re too sensitive’, which only goes to prove that there is no understanding or care for the history of a marginalised community. It’s important that we learn from these high profile incidents, educate ourselves on cultural appropriation, and learn the best way to avoid it.

How to avoid propagating cultural appropriation

There is no hard and fast line when it comes to what constitutes cultural appropriation. Cultural appreciation and exchange are a vital part of becoming a more inclusive society. Borrowing is not inherently bad. However, issues arise when appreciation becomes exoticising, when exchange becomes rip-off, or when cultures are represented as a single stereotype. It’s complicated, which is why it is so important that we start talking about it.

Creating cultural awareness and honouring the culture of others is great for developing understanding and awareness. But there are some things to consider before adopting clothing, a turn of phrase, or a symbol from a different culture:

Research and question yourself

Taking another culture’s intellectual property without respect, knowledge or insight can ultimately lead to misrepresentation. Doing a simple search on the internet can give you a wealth of knowledge on the heritage of the hairstyle, dance, fashion, you have become interested in replicating. Question whether your discovery or muse is directly related to the culture (or not as in the case of Bo Derek and ‘her’ hairstyles).

Consider the sacred symbolism

Living in a white-centric, Western world, it can be easy to overlook sacred beliefs and traditions of some cultures. For example, Berlin-based HOLI Festival of Colours came under fire in 2015 when it was called out for organising an event based on the Hindu ‘Holi Festival’ in London. The Glastonbury-esque event charged attendees £30 to £50 to drink alcohol, dance to beats and throw paint at one another. The Holi festival has a much more sacred history, celebrating the arrival of spring and the victory of good over evil. Some argued that three European men hosting a ‘party’ and openly basing it on a historically religious event, was concerning at best, at worst, it erased the origins a marginalised people’s religious beliefs. Before you stick on that bindi, or purchase that Indian headdress for Coachella, consider the symbolism behind them.

See through stereotypes

Cultural stereotypes may be highly offensive to marginalised groups, meaning a ‘joke’ costume on occasions like Halloween can cause offence and humiliation. If you’re planning to play dress-up, think about the ‘character’ you’re representing. You may call it role play, but it could well be a misrepresentation of an entire culture.

Encourage and promote diversity

 There is a serious lack of diversity within media, marketing, fashion and the arts. If you’ve suddenly spotted a new fad on Instagram, it’s a good idea to look further into why this craze had made traction and what influence has shaped it. In 2012, Lady Gaga erotised the burqa in a song of the same name and wore her own style of one on various occasions. Her lyrics included lines such as:  ‘Do you wanna see me naked, lover? Do you wanna peek underneath the cover?’

Rather than using her platform to empower women and raise awareness of the reasons women wear the burqa, she sexualised it in a way that is likely to have offended many wearers. 

Talk to people

True cultural exchange and appreciation are all about gaining an authentic understanding of another person’s culture. The simplest and most effective way of doing this is to have conversations with people of different backgrounds and ethnicities to your own. Expand your community and communication with people from different walks of life and you’ll benefit from a wealth of shared experiences and perspectives on the world. 

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