The Appropriateness of Cultural Appropriation
Now I won’t claim to be an expert on this topic, but as it becomes much more of a mainstream issue due to the sharing of photos and opinions through many social media, it is certainly worthy of being talked about.
Cultural appropriation is often of little concern to those who practice it, as they are usually entirely oblivious to the fact they are even involved in doing so. But if they have noted that what they’re doing could cause offence or come across as insensitive, and gone on to do it anyway, well it's clear they need to reassess the way they think. This post is for the people who genuinely wish to avoid inadvertently conveying disrespect towards certain cultures.
What follows in my personal view on what I have found disrespectful myself or have come to recognise as such through being fortunate enough to have an immensely diverse group of friends. So here’s a little guide to help you get to grips with what cultural appropriation actually means, and how to avoid taking part in it and instead show your appreciation for culture and diversity.
“I’m taking part in a South Asian dance show and I was wondering if it would be okay to wear the Asian style clothes and accessories i.e. saree, a bindi, as my Asian friends taking part will be.”
We have an event like this that takes place annually at Bancroft's - it's called Taal of course. For this event, people from different backgrounds are welcome to join in and are able to wear Asian clothes and accessories. Why is this not cultural appropriation? Because in this case you are coming together with people from this specific culture to celebrate their traditions and educate yourself about their culture. It’s also a show that diversity is something to welcome with open arms! Therefore, as long as the organisation taking part is giving out the same message, this is cultural appreciation.
“So I’m going to Reading festival with my friends this summer and I’ve seen that some girls wear bindis to these music festivals. They look cool and we were thinking of wearing them when we go, would that be okay?”
Er, no it wouldn't. I can’t stress enough how distasteful it is to be one of those girls (or boys) who wear bindis at music festivals. By wearing something outside of your culture to an event with no connection to that culture, you are not appreciating it. You are cultural appropriating. You may not see how that’s the case, since you believe wearing this traditional South Asian bindi is a show of how open to diversity you are. But I can tell you now that this isn’t the image you’re portraying. Whenever I see this at festivals, all I can think is ‘well, that’s kinda ignorant’. Why? Because when you take something out of its cultural context ( which also has nothing to do with your own) you’re saying that you don’t care about where it came from or about the people who have held it as one of the signs of their culture, faith or even religion for centuries. You’re saying that you’re entitled to take the bits and pieces you choose of other cultures without a second thought to these people who have faced many hardships and even discrimination based solely on these things.
Please don’t follow this ‘trend’, even if celebrities out there have no problem with it. Let’s just stick to flower crowns. guys.
“I saw this amazing accessory at my favourite store - it looks like a Native American headdress but with really nice sequins and stuff. Am I good to wear it even though I’m not Native American?”
No you aren’t. I don’t think you have to be Native American to realise how disrespectful this is. If you read up on Native American history you’ll find that the headdress has spiritual meaning and was reserved for only the elders to wear. By wearing something like that when you are not a Native American yourself, you end up belittling the culture it is derived from and the Natives who were effectively subject to mass genocide by the hands of European settlers. I can’t see this as anything other than cultural appropriation.
“One of my closest friends is getting married and she’s having a traditional Indian wedding. Is it okay for me to attend in the traditional Indian style of dress?”
I would say that this is fine. Just like the dance show example, you’re showing your appreciation for the culture and your support. This is also the case since you are not taking anything from this culture out of its context. In my opinion, this is cultural appreciation, so enjoy being part of this experience and see it as an opportunity to be culturally enriched. So someone gives you if an amazing chance like this, take them up on it!
“I've seen some members of the Kardashian-Jenner family wearing their hair in cornrows and I think I want to try out that style. Am I good?”
To be honest, no you aren’t. When seeing certain celebrities wear their hair in traditionally black hairstyles who do not come from this background at all, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Why? Well, often white celebrities are praised when trying out something as ‘different’ as a hairstyle prominent in black culture, with many media outlets labelling the stars as ‘trendsetting and innovative.’ Look no further than ‘Elle UK’ who praised baby hair as a new trend inspired by Katy Perry when in reality, black women have had this hairstyle for quite a while. This highlights the stereotypes cast out quite freely in today’s society. Taking the hair example, many black people have spoken out about how they have been labelled as ‘ghetto’ for wearing their hair naturally or have been told that such looks are ‘unprofessional’. So it seems that one is truly acting on their privilege by mimicking black culture whilst Eurocentric ideas of beauty are constantly perpetuated through mainstream media. Yet, just like we see with Taal, there a few exceptions. For example many people used the festival hosted by BACS as an opportunity to take part in the culture, with some girls getting their hair braided. This being done within the fitting cultural context demonstrates it as cultural appreciation.
Long story short – if you aren’t black or it doesn’t fit the context, don’t do it.
Thanks for reading and if cultural appropriation has confused you in the past then I hope that some of that confusion has now been cleared up.
Artwork by Nina Athill