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Unpacking Some Common Confusions About Cultural Appropriation

No one is saying that you aren’t allowed to like rap music.
By Elsie Stone, 24 Apr 2015
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Unpacking Some Common Confusions About Cultural Appropriation
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In light of #ReclaimTheBindi, actor Amandla Sternberg (Rue from The Hunger Games) unpacking cultural appropriation and Coachella, and the (valid!) comments you guys made about whether, for example, wearing a bindi when one is not Hindu celebrates that culture or defames it, Elsie Stone has tried to unpack the most common misconceptions about cultural appropriation.

1) "I just thought it looked cute! I'm not wearing it to be offensive."

This kind of response is a classic example of the common misconception that acts of racism can only be carried out by people who are racist.

When you truly don't believe yourself to be a racist and know that you would never intentionally discriminate against someone or act maliciously against them due to race, it's quite confronting when someone tells you that what you're committing is a racist act. At this point it's easy to shut off and think that person is just being mean or ridiculous, but it's important to understand here that when someone is telling you that your cornrows, your kimono or the feather in your hair is cultural appropriation, you are not being accused of being a Bad Person or belonging to the KKK or something like that. Most people know you didn't intend to culturally appropriate, but intent really isn't what the issue is here – it's ignorance.

It's about the fact you maybe don't know or care that you are wearing something that is of huge cultural importance to a significant group of people somewhere in the world. This is a problem because it means that the process of becoming cool in pop culture or cute in fashion has erased the cultural importance of the item and reduced it to merely another cute trend that you'll wear for a year until it inevitably becomes "uncool" and the next cute thing comes along.

So even if you aren't racist and would never intend to be malicious, by culturally appropriating you are still actively partaking in the erasure of other cultures, whether you meant to be offensive or not.

2) "It's just a Halloween costume and a little bit of fun! Can I Live?!"

Um, hello, when you dress up as a race for "fun" you are quite literally "making fun" of how people of that race look.

The difference between dressing up like a Native American and a whole bunch of non-Germans wearing lederhosen at Oktoberfest is that wearing lederhosen is dressing up in a national costume, as opposed to dressing up as a certain way that an entire race of people are stereotyped as looking like.

For example, when you dress up as a Native American you are advancing racist stereotypes of the past which harm the way those people are viewed by human society, and furthers the already popular idea that they aren't real, diverse, complex human beings. There's a reason that dressing up as a White Dude isn't nearly as popular at costume parties; no one has a preconceived stereotypical idea of what a White Dude looks like.

3) "How is blending cultures and sharing part of our identity ever a bad thing? I live with a couple of Indian women who love it when I wear a bindi!"

The mistake being made here is thinking that people who tell you to stop culturally appropriating want you to stop participating in aspects of other people's cultures or enjoying them at all, which is dumb and also nearly impossible for white people because so much of what they like to do, eat, wear, listen to, is 'borrowed' from other cultures over the world.

One difference between doing something like sitting down for a nice box of sushi (cultural exchange) and other forms of cultural appropriation is that you aren't taking an element of culture and dramatically changing it's use or meaning. When we eat Japanese food we know it's a food that originated in Japan and that it is unique to their culture. When a young white woman walks into a party with a bindi on her forehead she is doing it (usually) because she thought it looked nice on her, and thus a religiously important symbol is appropriated for vanity, and the true meaning is lost.

The problem isn't only that the original meaning is lost, but also that privilege means that when humans who are seen as "white" wear a bindi/headscarf, etc on the street they can do so without worrying about being attacked, whether it be verbally, physically or both. People of colour do not have that privilege of not worrying, because they are wearing a bindi or a headscarf/turban in a world which tells us these things are scary or Different on brown-skinned people.

If you are visiting a foreign country or have friends who belong to a different race and you get invited to participate in some sort of cultural ceremony or to dress up in their traditional clothes then, as long as you show proper respect, there is nothing wrong with what you're doing.

4) "If almost everything we do and wear is borrowed from another culture now, how am I meant to avoid cultural appropriating?"

Well, awareness is a really good start. It's true that because there are so many different cultures mixed up in our lives and in pop culture that 100% avoiding appropriation is kind of an impossible task. Also, whether something is appropriation totally changes on the context, so the only hard and fast rules are against the very blatantly racist examples of appropriation, like wearing blackface at a party or a headdress at Coachella.

When it comes to fashion especially there here are some good things to think about before heading off to da club in your bindi and your kimono and that feather in your hair:

Am I wearing this only because I want to look good? Just remember when answering 'yes' to this that you are choosing to further racial stereotypes and erase cultures for the sake of maybe getting a pash tonight. If that troubles you, consider whether you would still possibly get a pash without it (you totally could).

If you really can't go without your kimono, etc, then you should start concentrating on where you are buying those things from. Wearing silk kimonos which were made in Japan by local artisans and vendors or moccasins which were made by Native American leather-workers is so much better than buying those things from big, transnational sellers who will go home to their big mansions which were paid for by stealing styles from other people's cultures. Also, when buying from local, native, traditional buyers then you are taking the more environmentally friendly option too.

-

Liked this? Read these articles about cultural appropriation:

1) The Evolution of the Slogan T-shirt: From Sex, to Politics, to Coachella

2) #Reclaim the Bindi Wants to End Cultural Appropration

3) Watch Rue From The Hunger Games Unpack Cultural Appropration

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