As we watch artists and celebrities being humiliated and called racist, it is hard not to fear the reach of the cultural-appropriation police, who jealously track who “owns” what and instantly jump on offenders. It is important to bear in mind that every individual’s modern understanding of cultural appropriation is highly distinct. It’s not always about what Halloween costume you wear or who cooked biryani, but about how credit was not given to a minority, how they fall into a deeper hole of disadvantages.
The “appropriation” concept has been used to object too many forms of cultural mixing, certain criticisms of the term become increasingly credible. The more things are stuffed under the “cultural appropriation” tent, the more genuine the apprehension that it may put restrictions on creativity, cultural exchange, and modernisation.
When dominant groups steal aspects of the minority culture it contributes to them being oppressed and facing more disadvantages. Cultural appropriation has innumerable times given the prevailing group recognition for aspects of a culture that they have taken, supporting the power disparity between the two groups. When people from principal cultures simply ‘dress up’ a certain way, just so that they can have ‘a bit of fun’, it diminishes something of cultural significance to a costume. It just keeps stereotypes going. And when beliefs have been oppressed, labels often add to their harm.
Cultural influence is an integral component of the fashion world. When Selena Gomez wore a bindi it was regarded as misuse of the representation. Gomez was seen as not supporting or relating the bindi to its origin of Hinduism, but furthering her own self-expression. Actress Amandla Stenberg made a video about the use of black hairstyles and black culture by non-black people, accusing some celebrities of using “black culture as a way of being edgy and gaining attention”.
The Kardashians have been a part of countless culture appropriation scandals. On multiple occasions Kylie and Kim were spotted wearing cornrows, stealing aspects from the black community while natural hairstyles where considered as ‘unprofessional’ for the community. In 2019, Kim Kardashian released a shapewear line named Kimono dishonouring a costume carrying over 1,000 years of history. Moreover Khloe Kardashian caused a controversy while wearing a niqab on her trip to Dubai
But does this mean that it is always wrong to engage with another culture? No, certainly not. Events such as being invited to an Indian wedding and wearing traditional clothes or even wearing a specific costume dedicated to a certain festival is not culture appropriation. But it is important to make sure that the hosts approve of it.
It is imperative to learn about what is not cultural appropriation. Throughout history we have seen uncountable instances of cultural exchange. Things such as exchange of spices, tea coffee and pasta can be considered as ‘borrowings’. When cultures come together exchange happens. But this can only happen when it takes place on an equal footing.
To the question frequently asked, how culture appreciation is different from culture appropriation, the answer time and again lies in whether you are bearing in mind clothing or a representation that is sacred to alternative culture and definitely benefits that culture.
Racism is intensely deep-seated in all of us and effects how we engross with each other every day. Which means that when it comes to cultural appropriation, I strongly believe that it is essential to be conservative. Not in order to encourage fear, but to refrain from further harming communities of colour.
If you’re unsure, just don’t do it.
Put down the scarf, the bindi, or the headdress. Save it for a moment in which you can be certain you’re not hurting a minority.