I remember when I was in seventh grade; it was St. Patrick’s Day and everyone had to wear green.
I remember that on that day, I was about to carpool with my friend–let’s call him J. He and his mom were at my house, and I reminded J that today was St. Patrick’s Day. J had forgotten that, and unfortunately he didn’t have anything green on him at the moment, so my dad gave J a green shirt that my dad didn’t really like (because the shirt had a print, and he only liked plain clothes). J’s mom also used a hole puncher to punch a tiny circle from a piece of green construction paper. She then affixed the circle to J’s head.
“Cultural exchange!” she joked; this tiny green circle was intended to be a bindi, and it was meant to be a cross between Irish and Indian cultures. Back at the time, we all thought it was very funny. Unfortunately, the bindi fell off J’s head when we went to the car, and we couldn’t find it. So J went to school with just a green shirt, which was good enough for him. Looking back, though, I think it was a good thing that the bindi fell off J’s head. I think we could have gotten into trouble for cultural appropriation at school, which was very diverse–it had Indian students and an Indian teacher.
So what is cultural appropriation, anyway? Cultural appropriation is taking elements from another culture and using them to look cool or funny. Often this means using the elements inappropriately, disrespecting the people who belong to that culture. Now, I am not Indian, but some of my Indian friends could have gotten offended by the way J wore the bindi. Many Indians argue that the bindi has religious and spiritual significance. At the time, since none of us were Indian, we didn’t really understand the origins behind the bindi or its appropriate usage. We thought it was funny.
(There are those who don’t think it’s cultural appropriation because they argue that many Indians haven’t been using the bindi properly either. But from what I’ve read, there are Indians who do take it seriously. So I’ll just respect them for that and not meddle with what they wear.)
The way cultural appropriation usually works is: people who do belong to the appropriated culture can face bad consequences for correctly using the elements of their own culture. The people who are appropriating the features of the appropriated culture can actually inflict those consequences. For example, consider the incident in which Kylie Jenner posted a selfie with cornrows and then Amandla Stenberg called her out on cultural appropriation. I can see why Amandla was so offended. First of all, she’s a PoC (person of color); Kylie is not. Many blacks are required to wear their hair in a certain way in the workplace, and when cornrows are worn on blacks, they’re thought of as criminals. But when a white person wears cornrows, suddenly cornrows become trendy! I don’t know about you, but that sure seems unfair and disrespectful to blacks. The same thing can be said of the bindi. When an Indian woman wears a bindi for religious purposes, people think she’s too foreign, but when non-Indian celebrities wear it and disregard any religious connotations, the bindi also becomes a trend.
I’ve heard some say the following.
- What’s the big deal? It is just hair and it’s my choice. You may not like my hairstyle, but I have a right to wear it. Can’t we be allowed the freedom to express ourselves? [I’ve also heard a similar comment that was about clothes and not hair.]
- Isn’t this encouraging segregation? Does that mean we can’t ever engage in another culture? What about cultural exchange?
- But I see blacks with straight hair, Asians wearing Western clothes, etc. etc. all the time!
- I am not racist at all! Not all people are like this.
Here are my responses to those people in order.
It is not a matter of whether your look looks pretty or ugly. Consider the fact that you are allowed to exercise your choice, your freedom, your individuality, your rights, without being unfairly stereotyped and treated badly; people of non-white cultures are not granted this benefit. Now, there will always be those people who don’t like what you choose. But this doesn’t come with stereotypes or regulations. In the workplace and in some schools, ethnic hairstyles are forbidden or restricted. I read that black women are sometimes not allowed to wear cornrows or dreadlocks, even when the hairstyles can come in handy (like keeping hair neat). And when a black person chooses to wear cornrows, he/she is stereotyped as straight from the ghetto; when a white person wears it, Elle and a bunch of beauty magazines hail cornrows as a cool new way to express oneself.
Talking about the problem of cultural appropriation means that if you do engage in another culture, do so respectfully and fully credit the culture. Others can participate. But participation in a culture does not mean only praising the food/clothes/hair and regarding its people as their props. It does not mean treating a culture like a fantasy book that you can jump inside, with the culture’s people as one-dimensional characters fully immersed in this exotic lifestyle; when you tire of the culture, you jump out of the pages and throw it away to forget about it. Realize that cultures are not static–they can change over time. Participation in a culture does not mean ripping it off and painting a degraded picture of it with music videos and memes. Participation in a culture does not mean reducing an object’s significance to your own advantage; to look funky and cool and stuff. If you want to take inspiration from another culture to design something, that’s fine. But use inspiration properly and don’t reduce a painting’s spiritual importance to a mere fashion pattern. Also, cultural exchange is something mutual; cultural appropriation is taking and taking for yourself.
I see straight-haired blacks and Asians wearing Western clothes many times too (the latter even more so because I am Asian and as I am typing this, I am wearing Western clothes). But consider the fact that Western style basically took over the world. The natives were (and still are) subordinated trash. The whites were (and still are) the higher-class cool kids. For example, when the Spanish colonized the Philippines, the Filipino natives had too dark skin and weird hair in the eyes of the colonists. The Spanish colonists, on the other hand, had nice pale skin and nice brown hair. Status depended on how much Spanish blood you had. To be middle class, you needed to be mestizo. Similar situations sprung up whenever whites colonized a non-white country. So Western style is favored more. This applies to straight-haired blacks. In Amandla Stenberg’s video about cultural appropriation, her hair was straight. But a black girl straightening her hair is not cultural appropriation because maybe it’s the only other way to keep her hair neat if there will be so much stigma about cornrows on her.
If a minority culture must adopt the dominant culture in order to fit in, that’s cultural assimilation. It’s not cultural appropriation because it’s not cherry-picking elements to look cool and edgy while ignoring the people and the significance behind them. Another thing. If a white woman needs to put her hair into cornrows because her hair is way too wild (like Merida’s hair) to be styled into anything else and she needs to keep her hair out of her face, that is not cultural appropriation because she did not do it to look cool. When deciding when to call out cultural appropriation, we should always look at the context surrounding it.
(The same logic behind cultural appropriation can also be applied to religion that is not specific to a culture. Like Roman Catholicism. I’ve seen some people, who aren’t really very religious, wear rosaries round their necks as a fashion accessory. A rosary is a string of prayer beads; it is not to be used as a fashion accessory. In church, I see some people wear rosaries around their necks, myself included when I was little. But it is not that they wear it for fashion purposes–they wear it like that so they can have their rosaries on hand when they need them. As for me, I wore mine around my neck so I wouldn’t lose it.)
And in response to the fourth argument, we are all racist to some extent. Discriminatory attitudes come from a function in our brains that was designed to help humans survive the wilderness. It’s a sorting function. We constantly sort and classify. This is good in the wilderness because it ensures safety from poisonous plants and dangerous animals. It is also good in identifying allies; anyone who deviates from your tribe’s ways and looks is seen as a threat. This function is not so good in a modern, structured civilization where dangerous animals are not our first priority because it starts taking on people of different cultures. Next, it is good to keep in mind that not every single person of privilege is a cultural appropriator. But if you should create or follow a whole hashtag movement around that one fact, (*cough* #NotAllWhiteWomen *cough*) then this is shifting the conversation from a systemic problem to a bunch of individuals.
I’ll admit that I am guilty of appropriation. In previous themes (the way the site looks), I used a blue “Aztec-print” background for the Imagination Igloo.
When you use “tribal patterns”, you’re using a ripped-off version of patterns considered sacred.
But if you are guilty of cultural appropriation, rest assured that you are not a bad person. We should just all be more mindful of what we do when we get involved with certain cultures.