“What would America (and the world) be like if we loved black people, as much as we love black culture?” – Amandla Stenberg
The fashion industry is fierce. It’s tough, sets unrealistic expectations and leaves you staring at yourself in the mirror just that bit longer, wishing you had a smaller this and bigger that. We’ve always been one’s to take bits and pieces that we love from the catwalk and parade them around the streets of our neighbourhood. But what happens when we start taking bits and pieces from people’s culture and traditional dress to jazz up our outfits? You my friend, are engaging in cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is ‘the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s cultural elements by members of the dominant culture.’ (Frew, 2015).
The issue here is power. And moreso ‘post-colonial power’ (Nicklas & Lindner, 2012). The dominant or ‘normal’ culture is free to appropriate what they want, whereas the ‘minority’ or ‘marginalized group’ is left with significant cultural forms of expressions, being worn by white girls at music festivals. Cultural appropriation is dangerous and damaging. According to Everyday Feminism contributor, Maisha Johnson, it ‘trivialises violent historical oppression, let’s privileged people profit from oppressed people’s labour and perpetuates racist stereotypes.’ It’s no lie that the dominant or ‘normal’ culture in the mainstream media and society is a white, middle class man or women. And what gives us the right to take something significant from another culture, make it ‘cool,’ and only once a white person adopts it, is it widely accepted?
‘Marginalized groups don’t have the power to decide if they’d prefer to stick with their customs or try on the dominant culture’s traditions just for fun’ (Johnson, 2015).
We’ve come to accept that cultural appropriation regarding some items of clothing such as the Native American headdress as unacceptable as it is disrespectful of Native American history, traditions and oppression. It has already been banned at Montreal’s Osheaga’s Arts and Music festival and other major music festivals like Coachella have been encouraged to follow suit. So if we realise that we should show ‘respect and honour’ towards First Nation’s people in Canada and America, when will this translate to bindis, cornrows, grills, henna and any other ‘desirable’ or ‘exotic’ cultural traits.
It even extends to the whole, Booty craze sweeping the world at the moment. Sure, Queen B sang about it back in 2001 with Bootylicious, it’s only within the past year or two that the rise of the booty has exploded across the fitness scene. Now you can’t scroll through Facebook or Instagram without ‘how to get a bubble butt, #girlsthatsquat, big booty bitches…’ ANYTHING related to how apparently now it’s trending to have a big booty. This can extend from the ‘appropriation of African American culture, occurring as a result of the dominant culture’s fetishistic desire to consume blackness and to relegate the black body. They’re objectified and can leave the individual psychologically and emotionally damaged.’ (Bailey, 2012).
I’m not writing this to accuse people of being racist, or to depict anyone in any single way. We’re all different and have different experiences in life. However, being a white woman born in Australia, I have to acknowledge the extreme privilege that I have. I’m not trying to exclude myself from this either. I’ve worn saris and bindis to dress up parties and been to the gym and maybe hashtagged #thatass before. I’m also not trying to say that these traits can only ever belong to that cultural group. But I think it’s important to be educated and understand the history and significance these actions can have on others before doing so. I believe that the power I do have should be used to discuss these issues so we can attempt to empathise, empower and create change. If we continue to turn a blind eye to casual racism and cultural appropriation, especially regarding beauty, then we will only continue to perpetuate negative stereotypes.
So to answer the question at the beginning of this blog post, I believe the world would be a much better place if we loved people from all over the globe equally for who they are and not for what we can take from them.
Bailey, C 2012, Fight the Power: African American Humor as a Discourse of Resistance, The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 36, No. 4, University of Missouri
Frew, C 2015, Othering, blackface, appropriation and #blacklives matter, Lecture Slides, University of Wollongong, 14 August
Johnson, M 2015, What’s wrong with cultural appropriation? Everyday Feminism, June 14, http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/
Nicklas, P, & Lindner, O (eds) 2012, spectrum Literaturwissenschaft / spectrum Literature : Adaptation and Cultural Appropriation : Literature, Film, and the Arts, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, DEU. Available from: ProQuest ebrary. [14 August 2015].