Cultural appropriation is a divisive topic, exacerbated by the confusion between cultural appreciation and appropriation. When is “borrowing” something appropriate or not?
Exchange and appreciation between cultures is important. After all, minimizing exchanges between cultures causes people to grow isolated and polarized. As a result, when we do interact, a clash of culture follows. It’s also undeniable that multicultural diversity brings different ideas into the flow of commerce and improves our everyday lives.
However, cultural appropriation is different and it’s never good. The problem is that any formal definition is confusing; it’s vague and people will always ask, “Well, how do we know?”
Here is the first general guideline: Don’t do it if it disrespects the cultural practices of minority groups.
Disrespect often comes in the form of the sexualization of cultural dress, such as the Native American-style headdress worn by Karlie Kloss on the Victoria’s Secret runway in 2012. It degraded a headdress of great ceremonial importance to the Native American people that must be earned through acts of bravery and honor.
To make it worse, it belongs to a minority group subjected to the largest genocide in history and systematically oppressed through hundreds of years — a human rights offense aided, abetted and perpetrated by American presidents. It was worn by a person who was modeling lingerie; she and her company had the intent of looking “sexy.” Furthermore, this act also introduces cultural appropriation into the flow of commerce, mainstreaming similar costumes and somehow making it alright in the eyes of the public.
The ignorance revealed in the act shows a lack of concern that is the very basis of discriminatory behavior and offensiveness.
“I am deeply sorry if what I wore during the VS Show offended anyone. I support VS’s decision to remove the outfit from the broadcast.”
— Karlie Kloss (@karliekloss) November 11, 2012
The second guideline includes questions that everyone should ask themselves: Does this practice enforce a double standard? Am I doing something that is seen as hip and cool because of the color of my skin; have other people been unfairly discriminated against because of these very practices?
Take cornrows, for example. An African American person who wears cornrows in their hair often faces stigmatization and is treated as unprofessional, but when a white person in the entertainment or fashion industry wears it, it is often seen as a trend. When celebrities like Kylie and Kendall Jenner wear cornrows, Marie Claire calls them “new” and “epic.”
No, they’re definitely not new and cultural appropriation isn’t epic. To make it worse, these braids that are clearly cornrows are marketed under new names: Kendall Jenner’s “undercut braid.” Her use shouldn’t endow it with sudden trendiness. As consumers, we need to make conscious choices about the products and media we consume in order to erode the double standard that has arisen.
“Kendall Jenner takes bold braids to a new epic level”
— Marie Claire (@marieclaire) April 2, 2014
The double standard comes from the power play of cultural appropriation between a dominant culture and an oppressed one. A minority group is unable to speak out against the unfairness from powerful and influential platforms because of power dynamics that were not in their favor to begin with.
Carefully examining historical and social context goes a long way in determining whether something is cultural appreciation or appropriation.
Do your research, and ask yourself: Are you trivializing an important tradition? How are you using a privilege you may have been born with?