You have probably heard the term “cultural appropriation” all over the internet- angry tweets calling out celebrities and entire articles devoted to exposing the cultural insensitivity behind the latest fashion trend. However, even though a lot of people have heard the phrase, many don’t truly understand the concept, and some just choose to ignore this ever growing problem. But you’d better get used to it- the phrase has blown up, and people who are affected are calling it out on a daily basis. Remember Miley and the twerking? Selena and the Bindi?
What is cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is when a person utilizes an aspect of another culture purely for aesthetic reasons or personal enrichment. For example, wearing a feathered headdress to look cool at a festival is not okay- it’s cultural appropriation. Getting a tattoo of the Om symbol just because it looks great in dark ink is cultural appropriation. These things are very important to their respective cultures, and by using it as an aesthetic piece, you are disregarding these cultures.
This does not mean that we can’t wear each other’s clothes or celebrate other cultures. If we do it the right way, it’s perfectly fine. Appropriation shows disregard for another culture, and this is the problem. Cultural acknowledgment comes with blurred lines and regular bouts of cultural ignorance. How do we clear up the confusion? By establishing the difference between appreciating a culture and appropriating it.
Below you will find a short guide on how to appreciate a culture without appropriating it.
1.Do not reduce a culture to a fashion statement.
Sporting bindi, henna or corn rows may seem really great, but you probably don’t really understand their cultural and historical significance. By understanding this and taking steps to not culturally appropriate, you ensure that the people of that culture are not being ripped off. If you wear henna to a South Asian wedding, it’s not appropriation, but wearing it to Coachella is. Why? Wearing henna to a wedding is honoring the culture and practices that you’re witnessing, but wearing it to Coachella is reducing it to a fashion statement. This goes for every cultural aspect that has been warped into a fashion statement.
2.Never use sacred artifacts or symbols of other cultures to accessorize.
It’s just wrong. Bottom line, do not do it. There is no way to correctly use sacred artifacts and symbols as accessories. You can learn about them, you can tell people about them, but never use them as accessories. An om tattoo on your ankle will never be okay, just as using beads in your hair to look the part for a festival will never be okay.
Certain things may symbolize tragic times for a specific culture, but by appropriating it, you downplay those tragedies.
3.Understand that by appropriating a culture, you are not promoting diversity
Appropriating a culture does not help the culture at all. If you wish to glorify a specific culture, do not wear the traditional garb and parade around- learn about that culture and teach others about it too. You are really not encouraging diversity by wearing the clothes of another culture- you’re stripping away its roots and ignoring the actuality of it.
4.Engage with a culture- don’t steal it.
This has been mentioned in the previous points, but it cannot be stressed enough. When you want to engage with a culture, get invited. Do not try to take over something that isn’t yours. Listen, understand, participate and appreciate, but do not appropriate.
5.Find other ways to appreciate a culture
You don’t have to wear culture specific clothes to appreciate a culture. You can appreciate it by getting involved in practices and learning the ways of the culture.
Wanting to know about different cultures is not a bad thing- you just have to know where the boundaries lie, and make sure you don’t cross over into the realm of appropriation!