The Thing About Cultural Appropriation Is…

I’m going to make a very intersting statement here.

Cultural appropriatino only makes sense in a Western context. 

The issue of who “owns” culture and cultural symbols is an interesting one. Who owns Native American regalia? The Chinese qipao? The Yuroba gele?

If I, as a black woman, went to India and wore a sari (saree?) I wouldn’t be appropriating the item. I would be engaging with the culture. People might even applaud my effort to dress, eat, and live among the local people. If I crafted a shalwar khameez using african print fabric I might even be engaging in a cultural exchange. 

But in the United States, for example, there is a history of european colonizers outlawing the cultural dress and customs of other peoples. There is a long history of systematicly alienating people from their roots. Languages, cultural practices, and even items of clothing became illegal. In that context, taking the cultural markers of “minority” cultures as costumes is disrespectful. 

The other aspect of that is upsetting is the lack of respect and willingness to give credit to the culture from which you may be borrowing your “fashion”. Kim Kardashian’s K-braids is a prime example.

  • When women of African descent have been wearing corn-rows for CENTURIES
  • when children were not allowed to show up to school in corn-rows as late as the 1990s
  • when men have been fired for wearing braids to work
  • when people have lost job opportunities behind these same braids

….why the HELL does Kim Kardashian get to put her name on them?

In Nigeria, if a Welsh woman decides to get her hair braided, she doesn’t get to divorce it from its roots and brand it as her own. They remain NIGERIAN, and are respected as part of the AFRICAN culture.

In much the same way, Native American headdresses are used to perpetuate stereotypes and reduce the myriad of beautiful cultures that they come from to one, monolithic image.This image is often divorced from it’s historical and cultural roots. It is never mentioned how sacred those headdresses are to the cultures they come from. It is never even mentioned that different Native cultures had different headdresses. And its rarely ever mentioned how hard the US Government worked to erase those cultures through brutal oppression and cultural genocide. 

Cultural appropriation is a sticky wicket for a lot of people, particularly if you have lived your life in a place where your culture has never been demonized, outlawed, or oppressed. But for those of us who have had to fight hard to reclaim those symbols, customs, and cultures, it is a real issue. My skin, my culture, my history is a jewel to be shared with the world. But it must be regarded as such. Its not a costume, and you don’t get to wear it for a day and brand it as your own. 

As I said, its a uniquely western issue and it seems silly to ask others to “get it”. But my recommendation for those who don’t is simply to always be sure to give credit to the places where you borrow your inspiration. Treat those cultural artifacts the same way you would want your culture to be treated if you were far from home and struggling to preserve your identity.  

 

 

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