Innappropriate Cultural Appropriation: Black Culture in Japan and Japanese Culture in America

“What would America (and the world) be like if we loved black people, as much as we love black culture?” – Amandla Stenberg

 We’re in a toxic relationship with the fashion industry, and it’s fierce. We 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? Add a bit of ignorance and you’ve got yourself cultural appropriation.

Vanessa Hudgens wearing a Native American head dress and Indian bindi. Source
Vanessa Hudgens wearing a Native American head dress and Indian bindi. Source

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). It is generally associated with white people appropriating other’s cultures. The classic example is above, a white girl wearing a bindi and head dress at a music festival.

‘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).

But watch out Vanessa Hudgens, hello Japanese teenagers where an interesting form of cultural appropriation taking place. B-Style (Black lifestyle) is becoming a trend among young Japanese people who change their hair and skin to look like black rappers or singers. It involves using a sun bed to make their skin darker and spending hours and huge amounts of money on their hair.

“We live in a highly globalized world where lines are blurred, rules are changing and cultures are melting together to form new ones” (Yuen, 2012)

B Style Japanese girl. Source
B Style Japanese girl. Source

There are many obvious criticisms of B-Style. Firstly, that they’re engaging in ‘blackface’ which has strong racist history in the United States (Siddiqui, 2012). The similarities between Vanessa Hudgens and the Japanese youth is power. Or ‘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 or B-Stylers on the streets of Tokyo.

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 is only this year that wearing a head dress has been banned at Montreal’s Osheaga’s Arts and Music festival to show respect and solidarity.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 24: Singer Katy Perry performs onstage during the 2013 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 24, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) Source
LOS ANGELES, CA – NOVEMBER 24: Singer Katy Perry performs onstage during the 2013 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 24, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) Source

It’s a very unique and interesting position for these Japanese B-Stylers to be in. Japanese culture has been appropriated beyond belief. The above image is one of many celebrities appropriating Japanese culture. Whilst it can appear artistic or creative, the truth is ‘nothing can remove the demeaning and harmful iconography of the lotus blossom from the West’s perception of Asian women.’ (Yang, 2013) We’ve always looked to Asia through Orientalist glasses, and we want to keep the stereotype that way.

The issue then of young B-Stylers adapting American black culture is complicated. B-Stylers say it is out of pure appreciation and respect. Comedian, Margaret Cho says ‘a Japanese schoolgirl uniform is kind of like blackface’ which would explain both black and Japanese culture to be offended by it’s adaptation by the other (Feeney, 2013). However it doesn’t make any of it ‘ok’ if people are still being offended.

Source
Source

An Interrupt Mag article by Mojuicy, explore various questions you can ask yourself to ensure you are not appropriating a culture.

  1. What is my relation to this culture?
  2. Why am I wearing it?
  3. Who made the product?
  4. How respectful/accurate is it? (Mojuicy)

By asking ourselves these questions, whilst being aware that the things we decide to wear, inspired or taken from another culture, can cause immense offense to that culture’s history and traditions. By doing this we can try to avoid tension and be more appreciative and accepting of one another.

References

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

Feeney, N 2013, ‘Katy Perry’s Geisha style performance needs to be called out’, The Atlantic, 25 November, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/11/katy-perrys-geisha-style-performance-needs-to-be-called-out/281805/

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

Siddiqui, A 2012, ‘B-Style is a racist fashion trend slowly finding its voice in Japan featured’, Dramafever, http://www.dramafever.com/news/b-style-is-a-racist-fashion-trend-slowly-finding-its-voice-in-japan-featured/

Yang, J 2013, ‘Geisha a-go-go: Katy Perry’s AMAs performance stirs debate’, The Wall Street Journal, http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2013/11/25/memories-of-a-geisha-katy-perrys-amas-performance-stirs-debate/

Further Information

You can read about B-Style experience in Japan here

You can read more about racism and lack of cultural diversity in Japan here

You can read more about appropriation versus appreciation here

Booty and Beauty: The Fine Line of Cultural Appropriation

“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).

Black cultural appropriation by celebrities: Kylie Jenner, Miley Cyrus and Christina Aguilera
Black cultural appropriation by celebrities: Kylie Jenner, Miley Cyrus and Christina Aguilera

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?

Everyday Feminism: explains how it is. Source
Everyday Feminism: explains how it is. Source

‘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).

Native American headresses have slowly been banned at various music festivals. Source
Native American headdresses have slowly been banned at various music festivals. Source

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.

Nicki Minaj flaunting her booty. Source
Nicki Minaj flaunting her booty. Source

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).

Alex Wek. International super model who speaks openly about her struggles as a black model coming from a South Sudanese/British background. Source
Alex Wek. International super model who speaks openly about her struggles as a black model coming from a South Sudanese/British background and also encourages individual beauty of the mind, heart and soul. Source

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.

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References

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].

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/05/cultural-appropriation-in-fashion-stop-talking-about-it/370826/