But, it’s also clear there’s a major disconnect between those who call out appropriation, and those who actually do it. To some, slapping a bindi on their forehead might seem like a no-big-deal fashion statement — or, like they’re paying tribute to a culture they admire. To others, a non-Hindu person in a bindi represents an arrogant disrespect of a culture to which they have no claim. Clearly, we’re not hearing each other here.
To find some understanding between the social-justice crowd and the hipsters-in-headdresses brigade, we spoke with experts for their take on what's okay, what’s just not, and how we can all do better. Turns out, there’s a thin line between appropriating and appreciating, and the key to not being a jerk when you’re getting dressed is knowing the difference.
First, a definition.
Author Lenore Keeshig-Tobias defines cultural appropriation as “taking, from a culture that is not one's own, intellectual property, cultural expressions and artifacts, history and ways of knowledge.” But, as Adrienne Keene, PhD. of the blog Native Appropriations tells us, there is an additional factor at play: power. “There is always an inherent power imbalance — it is the dominant group taking from a marginalized group. With cultural appropriation, this also often plays out in the realities of colonization: It is the colonizer taking from the colonized.”
Anna Akbari, PhD., sociologist and founder of Sociology of Style, likens appropriation to Edward W. Saïd's concept of Orientalism, which she describes as "a way of using another culture in a way that delights our imagination, while making them the Other, and stripping them of their identity."
Akil Houston, PhD., professor at Ohio University, offers an even more plain-spoken definition: “It is the use of another culture or cultural symbols to support or justify one’s need for self-expression or sense of freedom. Quite simply, it is theft.”
So, why is it problematic?
The harm done by cultural appropriation is often moral or symbolic in nature, so it can be tricky to pin down. But, there are some very concrete economic concerns. Dr. Keene points out that the so-called “tribal” prints and replicas of Native American designs that we see everywhere from Urban Outfitters to runway shows can be thought of as the intellectual property of the tribes and communities that invented them. If that’s the case, she says, “they should have the right to have power over [the designs], and to economically benefit from them.” Sound far-fetched? As she points out, “Christian Louboutin has a trademark on red soles, [which gives him] power over that design element and right of ownership. Why can't Native peoples ask for the same?”
It’s not just about money, though. The deeper harm in cultural appropriation lies in its tendency to replace real, live people with stereotypical symbols. Dr. Keene says: “I felt invisible as a Native person, because the only images my classmates and colleagues ever saw of Native people were the false stereotypes in fashion, advertising, and Hollywood. To them, even subconsciously, Indians were flat commodities to be bought and sold, whether as a fake dreamcatcher, beef jerky, or a mascot — not real, living, contemporary people.”
Stereotypes also, by definition, reduce a complex culture into a one-note symbol. There are 566 different Native American tribes in the United States, each with its own set of customs and dress, but we still tend to think of the headdress as representing some monolithic concept of the “Native American.” As Dr. Keene points out: “These stereotypes erase our contemporary cultures and identities, and lump Native peoples into one homogenous group.”
In this way, Dr. Keene tells us, “cultural appropriation interferes with a community's ability to define its own identity. When outsiders are using aspects of culture however they see fit, the meaning behind them is slowly diluted and lost.”
Everything But The Burden
Making the issue even trickier is the fact that cultural appropriation is often construed as an harmless, multicultural statement. As Dr. Houston states, "[appropriation] is harmful [because] it promotes a kind of enlightened racism. [It's] not as obvious as overt racial bigotry, but is probably more toxic, as it seems innocuous to dress up as Lil' Wayne for Halloween without recognizing the broader implications of this behavior."
Dr. Akbari sees the tendency to dismiss racial issues due to the myth that we're living in a fully-integrated, multi-cultural society: "It's not just conservative pundits declaring that racism is dead. There’s also the young, millennial generation who culturally are not that naïve, but who often think, ‘well, [these issues] aren't really relevant anymore, because Obama’s been elected and there’s no more racism.' And, I can’t help but wonder if the costuming or the cultural appropriation might have something to do with the sentiment that racism is dead, so these symbols are sort of up for grabs."
Adding insult (and irony) to the situation, the symbols of marginalized cultures that are now seen as fashion statements have often been denied to their group throughout history. Dr. Keene points out that “for hundreds of years, Native peoples were prohibited from practicing their culture and wearing our traditional clothing.” So now, when she walks into a mall and sees so-called "tribal" trends for sale, she “can’t help but remember the not-so-distant past when my people weren’t allowed, by law, to wear these things. It’s a constant reminder of the colonial power structures still in place. Back in the day, white people had the power to take away our culture, and now they have the power to wear it however they see fit. These are our images, our cultural symbols, yet we are completely powerless to have control over them.”
Dr. Houston adds that certain symbols of black culture are similarly repressed. “Black culture is often demonized for promoting the wrong values, or not being professional. There are school districts and work environments in the U.S. that do not permit natural hairstyles, ‘ethnic attire’, or any visible [signs] of black culture.” The army’s recent ban on twists and ‘fros longer than two inches — styles most frequently worn by black women — is just one recent example of this. “This has created a sense that black people must change the way they look, talk, and act in order to stay employed and in some unfortunate cases to stay alive,” Dr. Houston says.
Sometimes, there is no consensus.
As Dr. Akbari points out, "one crucial point to understand is that there is not a unanimous understanding or call to action amongst the groups being appropriated from." For example, she cites the mixed opinions on the recent proliferation of bindis on white-skinned pop stars’ foreheads. As writers like Anjali Joshi have pointed out, it’s true that bindis have been worn by many non-Hindu Indians as a fashion statement for decades. And, for some people, its non-sacredness makes the bindi non-offensive when it's adopted by non-Hindus, or white-skinned Americans. Some even see the bindi trend as a vehicle for South Asians’ acceptance into mainstream American culture. Writer Preeti Aroon welcomed Americans’ adoption of Indian fashion and culture, from yoga to bindi-wearing, as symbolic of these stars “casting their vote for Team India.”
But, writer Jaya Sundaresh argues that, while the appropriation of the bindi is lower on the scale of concerns for South Asians than the “Islamaphobia, racial profiling, and discrimination” they face, pop stars, like Selena Gomez, in bindis do not signal a larger acceptance or celebration of her heritage. “On [Gomez], it’s a bold new look; on me, it’s a symbol of my failure to assimilate. On her, it’s unquestionably cool; on me, it’s yet another marker of my Otherness. If the use of the bindi by mainstream pop stars made it easier for South Asian women to wear it, I’d be all for its proliferation — but it doesn’t.” Something worth thinking about next time you’re tempted to stick one on.
In this way, Dr. Houston points out, when members of a non-minority group adopt the dress of an oppressed group, they get to wear “in the words of Greg Tate, ‘everything but the burden.'" So, when, for example, Miley Cyrus or Sky Ferreira fill their videos with stereotypes of black culture, they get to evoke, in Dr. Houston’s words, the “sense of adventure, rebellion and sexuality [associated] with black culture,” but “without having to deal with the social and political baggage” of being black. Put simply, there is a double standard at work when we afford white bodies more freedom of self-expression — even when wearing symbols of a different culture — than we allow members of the culture itself. And, it’s a sad thing when wearing the symbols of an oppressed culture is a luxury that even members of that culture cannot afford.
While everyone can (hopefully) agree that certain things are blatantly racist, there are a fair amount of gray-area appropriations, too. This writer, for example, wouldn’t dream of donning a war bonnet — but, I do own a pair of moccasins, and love dream catchers. I also grew up in the inner city and love hip-hop music, whose slang and style of dress has infiltrated my own to different degrees throughout the years. Can these be considered lesser aggressions, or are they still offensive?
“I definitely see levels to the egregiousness of cultural appropriation,” Dr. Keene tells us. “At the top are things considered sacred or ceremonial, like headdresses. I also have to pick my battles, so I'm not going to go after every celebrity in moccasins. But, dreamcatchers are something that have been so commodified by outsiders that their original meaning has been nearly lost. I bet most people don't know that they come from Anishnaabe communities, and that there are specific prayers and protocol that go into making them.”
Whether or not there is a true understanding of an item's origin, Dr. Akbari sees in many appropriations an attempt to commune with an admired culture: "We use aesthetics to demonstrate belonging to a group. And, I think that for some people who appropriate, it's good intentions poorly executed. They may truly admire a culture, and they may not have negative intentions, but, there is a lack of understanding of how they are presenting. The way we understand each other is visual. So, if you see someone walking down the street, you can't see the logic of why they're wearing something, or see their good intentions. All you can do is pass judgment on it."
In fact, she says, "I think many people genuinely mean [appropriation] as a tribute, but the question is, if it’s not knowingly problematic, or intended as mocking, does that make it okay? Maybe what we're calling for here is simply better history classes. This is an education that needs to start very young, when kids are reading books about what happened, and understanding that certain symbols are more than aesthetic — they have a genuine, cultural significance and resonance to the groups that created them."
To help de-tangle some of these issues, Dr. Keene co-signs this guide by Reddit user PPvsFC_, which breaks down various levels of Native American-inspired fashion by “code red” (definitely offensive), “yellow light,” and “green light” — although, as with all things, your mileage may vary.
So, how can we do better?
Now, all of this is not to say that you’re “not allowed” to wear what you want. What our experts consistently emphasized is doing your research first. “I, and others who care about cultural appropriation are not saying you can't ever wear items from another culture. What I argue for is doing it right. So, instead of going to [a mall store] and paying $7 for a cheap knock-off, go to the source. Know the story behind the piece, know the artist, what tribe they're from, why the specific designs were used. It puts the power back in the hands of the marginalized group.” Importantly, buying from a Native person or company also economically benefiting the artist and the tribe, rather than a company that’s knocking off their designs.
And, buying from the source is fairly straightforward when it comes to Native American products. “In the U.S., there are laws that govern who can legally sell ‘Native made’ products,” Dr. Keene advises. “So if the product says ‘Native American made,’ it should be okay — even better if it has a tribal affiliation and artist's name. Manitobah Mukluks is an awesome, Native-owned company, and the Beyond Buckskin Boutique curated by Dr. Jessica Metcalfe is an amazing place to start. She knows all the artists and designers she works with, and gives great background info in product descriptions, too.”
For other cultures, it can be difficult to locate similar hard-and-fast rules. But, it’s important to always keep in mind the notion of respect — which can come from an awareness of one’s own privilege, and, importantly, a willingness to credit and cop to your influences. For example, Dr. Houston uses the Beastie Boys as an example of non-problematic appropriation. “They were well aware that their whiteness provided a level of visibility and access that other equally talented people of color did not have, [but] they maintained a high level of respect and integrity with regard to hip hop, [choosing] to highlight or reference aspects of the culture in many of their performances.” Indeed, the Beastie Boys’ approach to and reverence for hip-hop feels a world away from Miley’s cynical and sensationalistic appropriation of “ratchet.”
Dr. Akbari, too, stresses the notion of having a true dialog: "What we can do is try to open a conversation with people [about appropriation], and use it as a door to talking, to educating, to truly celebrating a culture is. Simply scolding is not always the best option."
Respect may also come in the form of not “borrowing” anything from the culture you profess to love. As Dr. Keene points out, "I’m actually struggling to think of a time when I respected something, and decided the best way to show that respect was by taking it. I respect the Dalai Lama, but I wouldn’t put on Tibetan monk robes to show that respect. I respect the Zapatistas, but I’m not going to don a mask and wrap myself in an EZLN flag. You know how I show respect? I listen. I listen hard, I listen deeply, and I listen constantly. I listen to stories, I listen to histories, I listen to learn, and I listen to hear when I’ve misstepped. I listen so I can become a more complete human being.”
Cultural appropriation is the trickiest of topics because it hits at race, class, history, and the way we choose to self-identify. And, aside from some blatant offenses, it is largely a conversation that we’re all negotiating together. In the end, this is the best advice we’ve heard: be willing to learn, willing to be humble, willing to consider that your need for self-expression may not need to include another culture’s sacred symbols. And, most importantly, be willing to listen. Because, this is one thing it’s really worth getting right.
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