Photo by Ayyappa Giri via Unsplash.
In my experience, a lot of the time, people don’t mean to be racist. Their cultural appropriation often comes from a place of ignorance and not from a deliberate intent to harm. Nonetheless, it is harmful. As intersectional feminists, as people, we need to do better. We have the unique privilege of living in an increasingly globalised world, and as we come into contact with other cultures, I want to believe that we can all learn do so from a place of humility, curiosity and respect. Cultural appropriation is none of those.
Cultural appropriation: the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.
Context and the balance of power within that context are important. In the US, for instance, the dominant majority of people are white. There is a history of oppression when it comes to the Japanese minority, who continue to experience discrimination to this day. When Katy Perry wears a Kimono in this context, she is a member of the dominant culture appropriating the clothes of a minority. Her adoption was also both unacknowledged and inappropriate – she took objects of cultural significance out of their context, completely taking away their meaning by turning them into a costume. Even had she been in Japan, this alone would have been enough to make her actions be considered appropriative.
Cultural assimilation: the process in which a minority group or culture comes to resemble a dominant group or assume the values, behaviors, and beliefs of another group.
Cultural appropriation and assimilation are often conflated, but actually quite distinct when you look at the power dynamics. Here, it is the minority that must adapt – often not by choice. In much of Western Europe and America, for example, dress codes and corporate culture mandate the wearing of suits in the workplace. As such, to stay employed, members of minorities have had to set aside their traditional dress in favour of the more socially acceptable suit.
None of this could occur if it weren’t for the prevailing delusion that some of us, by the complete accident of our birth in a certain place, are better than others. A collective supremacist mindset does not appear overnight: It is reinforced, legitimised and normalised over time, by the actions and behaviours of individuals. Cultural appropriation is only one of many such actions that reinforces this system.
The more invisible this issue is to you, the more likely it is that you have the privilege of belonging to the dominant group or society – and the bigger your platform and opportunity to make change for the better.
What about freedom of expression?
What you are free to express, somebody else might be ostracized for. Freedom of expression remains a privilege, and a white American wearing dreadlocks in America, because they like the way it looks, is abusing theirs. Why? Because they will still be treated with more respect than a person of colour with the same hairstyle, who, amongst other things, will likely face discrimination in the workplace because of it. Self-expression isn’t quite so free when some people need to look a certain way to stay employed or safe.
“But it’s just a costume/cosmetic product/accessory!”
Every year, with growing incredulity, I watch the “Indian” costumes come out at Carnival. Now, Germany doesn’t have quite the same history when it comes to the oppression of Native Americans as the United States do, which should be enough to make those appropriating at Coachella think twice. Nor does our treatment approach the ongoing, systematic discrimination Native Americans face in the States. Again, though: somebody else’s culture should not be your costume. Native American headdress carries a cultural, historical and religious significance that you negate and violate when you appropriate it into an accessory.
From Urban Outfitters to the Rituals store I pass every day, companies are particularly guilty of appropriation too. With skincare lines like Samurai, Holi and Happy Buddha, Dutch company Rituals runs ads featuring predominantly Caucasian models wearing traditional clothes in ways that completely ignore their culture significance. Thousand-year-old traditions are exploited to sell hand cream, and these shallow, fetishised interpretations of other cultures reach an audience of millions. The marginalised cultures in question have nowhere near a comparable platform from which to rectify these misconceptions.
I just wanted to express my appreciation and didn’t mean to upset anyone.
Appropriation is not appreciation. Showing your appreciation by taking something from somebody too weak to defend themselves is respecting neither the thing you are taking or the person you’re taking it from. It is a presumptuous abuse of privilege to take freely the heritage others are forced to pay a price for.
If you have been taught that your intentions matter more than their impact, it is a reflection of your privilege. We don’t exist in a vacuum. Everything happens within a context and all individual actions have both social and historical implications. Members of marginalised cultures don’t have the luxury of overlooking the context, not when the discrimination they face serves as a constant, often painful reminder.
But people from XYZ culture said what I was doing was okay!
The response to Keziah Daum, who wore a traditional Chinese Qipao to prom, springs to mind. Did some Chinese people in America defend her decision? Yes. Were people in China happy about it? Yes. Does that excuse or negate the fact it was cultural appropriation? No. If anything, it is a reflection of internalised oppression.
In America, Asians make up 5.8% of the population – a minority, which becomes even smaller when you consider that China is only one of 48 Asian countries. Chinese Americans routinely experience racial discrimination. When the oppressed minority comes to use against itself the methods (in this case, dismissing cultural appropriation) of the oppressor, in an attempt to be more like the dominant group, we have internalised oppression.
I’m mixed race, and know what it feels like to be constantly reminded of my “otherness.” I’m lucky because the worst that usually comes my way is a racist remark. Others might be made to fear for their employment or safety. Still, though: no matter how proud of my Chinese heritage I am, before doing something which I know will highlight my otherness, I ask myself: will this provoke a racist response, and do I want to deal with that today?
I guarantee you that Daum did not give her choice that second thought, because she didn’t have to. She was free to help herself to my culture in a way that I am not, and she abused that privilege. What she did was also unacknowledged and innapropriate. Her pose in the photo above and her response to the controversy indicate a profound lack of knowledge about Chinese culture and experience. To her, it was just a fun experience.
What if I’m genuinely interested in learning about a different culture?
After all this talk, it might seem like there’s no way to do so without committing appropriation in some form, but that is definitely not the case! Cultural exchange is essential when it comes to building a more tolerant, egalitarian society.
Cultural exchange: a mutual exchange of customs, practices and ideas between two or more societies and peoples.
Cultural exchange is mutual and happens by invitation. It’s when a member of a certain culture chooses to share their customs, practices, ideas or language with you. It’s also about how you treat the culture in question.
Take Nick Jonas, who wore a Bakiyha Kurta during his wedding to Priyanka Chopra. By not treating the Kurta as a costume, but wearing it by invitation in an appropriate context, he acknowledged and participated in Indian culture in a way that was not appropriative.
Respect is essential in cultural exchange. When you acknowledge its history and origin as a spiritual path, your Yoga practice is respectful in a way it wouldn’t be if you treated it as just a physical exercise. Sacred artefacts and languages are meant to be treated with respect, too: so keep that in mind before posting “Namaste” on your Instagram picture of coffee.
The lines aren’t always clear, but we need to do our best to acknowledge and respect them.