If you pay any attention to celebrity gossip sites, you know that Kim and Kanye threw a Coachella-themed birthday party for little North West this past weekend. However, what a lot of people are talking about (besides North’s outfit and the fact that there are pictures of Kanye actually smiling) is a picture of Khloe Kardashian, Kim’s sister, wearing a giant Native American headdress as she sits next to a tipi.
As this picture comes on the tail of actual Coachella, with its legions of white girls sporting bindis, I figured this was a good time to talk about cultural appropriation.
While the technical definition of cultural appropriation is a little broader, encompassing assimilation, I’m going to be discussing it in the way that it’s used in social justice blogs. The kind of cultural appropriation I’ll be talking about occurs when someone of a dominant culture takes aspects of a marginalized culture – its music, symbols, or clothing, for example – and uses them for their aesthetic value, as accessories, with little understanding of their original meaning. Miley Cyrus’s use of ratchet culture is a prime example.
Cultural appropriation is disrespectful of the original cultures because it takes things that have meaning and importance (like Native American war bonnets or Hindu bindis) and strips them of their significance by using them as fashion statements. Actual people of that culture don’t benefit from appropriation, but designers and shops make money from it.
Another big problem with appropriation is the fact that the symbols appropriated are often ones that are devalued when they’re used by people of color. Sometimes these symbols were forcibly removed from a group when it was colonized, used as proof that the culture was “backwards” or uncivilized. When members of a privileged group “try on” these symbols with little appreciation of their history (both in their original meaning and the potential meaning forced on them by colonization) and without having to experience any of the oppression that these groups experienced, they replicate these power structures. (I’m aware that I’m speaking in super-general terms here; I’m just trying to give an overview of some of the issues).
It doesn’t matter whether the aesthetic borrowed is one that is positive or negative (i.e. – the “pretty” symbols of Perry’s geisha vs. Kesha’s “gangster” accessories, which might have more immediate associations with violence); as I discussed in my post about “good” stereotypes, any time a minority group is reduced to a few simplified symbols or stereotypes, it’s harmful.
Something I notice on articles about cultural appropriation is the resistance that a lot of people have to the idea that cultural appropriation is a negative thing. Here are some of the most common ones:
But my friend is ___ and he/she doesn’t care when I wear ___. OR I am ____ and it doesn’t bother me when people ___.
That’s awesome. I’m sincerely glad that you or your friend aren’t bothered by appropriation, and that you can avoid the negativity surrounding the issues. However, that doesn’t mean that other people shouldn’t be, and it certainly doesn’t mean that cultural appropriation is suddenly exempt from all of the problems I listed above.
But I’m celebrating and appreciating that culture!
There are a lot of ways to celebrate different cultures without being appropriative. The best ways to do so are ways that provide you with education and support the group in question. Instead of wearing a headdress, visit a Native American museum. Attend a local cultural event. Instead of buying a generic “tribal print” skirt at the mall, purchase cloth or jewelry made by an African artist.
Oh, so I guess I can’t wear plaid because it’s Scottish. OR What about people who appropriate white cultural artifacts?
Um, no. See, non-white people who take on white fashions or ways of speaking or dressing are often doing so as a method of survival – they have no choice. Sometimes this is the result of colonization, as I mentioned above. Sometimes it’s the result of the pressure to assimilate into the majority culture in order to face less discrimination (I mean, think about it – when you’re told to dress “professionally” that’s kind of code for “white” – anything overtly “cultural” like a sari, traditional makeup, or dreadlocks might be coded as “unprofessional” in an office setting). A person of color who wears traditional dress instead of Western clothes is seen as backwards or different. Wearing “white” clothing is a way to fit in to the mainstream society.
Now, I’m not claiming to be perfect here. I’m definitely not claiming that I’ve never appropriated from other cultures. There are instances from college – parties that I attended – that I’m actually too embarrassed to write about here, because of how inappropriate and culturally appropriative they were. We were young, white, and sheltered, and it was horribly stupid.
And we certainly weren’t the only ones. It seems like every few months you hear stories about college fraternities or sororities getting in trouble for a party with a racist theme.
While of course I think these parties are offensive, I also remember being younger, being from a mostly-white area, and not having any clue that using stereotypes for entertainment, regardless of how naïve your intentions, might be offensive. I do think it’s a little different today, in that platforms like Twitter and Tumblr spread awareness about these issues pretty quickly. But privilege really can blind you. The key is, when you’re called out on it, to listen, to understand, to apologize, and to change your behavior.