Cultural appropriation harms cultures when a prevailing culture adopts things from a different culture without interpreting them, or manipulates them in ways that contradict the origins, and substitutes the dominant culture’s idea of what the other culture is like. This Buzzle article tries to understand the meaning of the term cultural appropriation with the help of examples.
Urban Outfitters came up with a tacky Native American inspired clothing line ”Navajo Hipster” which immediately came under legal fire and was issued a cease-and-desist letter by the Navajo tribe for the misuse and commercialization of the tribe trademark.
The world is increasingly becoming a homogeneous mix of cultures as people get exposed and adopt the ethnic backdrops around them. But there is a very slight difference between appreciating a culture and appropriating the traditions for commercialization. The younger generation is more apt in mimicking the fashion trends projected by celebrities and the fashion industry through social media, without giving a second thought as to what exactly certain outfits, religious symbols, or decorations mean. What may seem as a cool adornment for some may hurt the sentiments of the original civilization by demeaning the value of their rich cultural heritage.
Cultural appropriation remains a cause of concern for diverse reasons as it foregrounds the power asymmetry that persists between those in power and those who’ve been historically segregated.
Definition of Cultural Appropriation
Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, specifically the use by cultural outsiders of a minority, oppressed culture’s symbols or other cultural elements.
Cultural Appropriation denotes the process by which members of comparatively favored ‘modern’ culture “maraud” or ”steal” the rituals, religious symbols, cultural symbols, aesthetics, art forms, and demeanor of less privileged ‘primitive’ culture for commercialization and adaption into ‘meaningless’ pop-culture.
Meaning and Examples
The roots of cultural appropriation were sown during colonization when the colonized countries were forcibly instructed to follow a culture that was not their own, and in return, their rich cultural treasures were lost and adopted partially by the colonizers. In the present day, this phenomenon persists as Westerners impart their own culture onto others and acquire what they want in return.
An individual’s culture is expressed through beliefs in certain symbols representative of his/her respective culture that gives him/her identity, a sense of belonging, and unity.
Cultural appropriation can be termed as a by-product of political orientation, capitalist economy, subjugation, and acculturation. Culture is often handled as a ‘natural resource’ by the dominating Westerners to be extracted from African, Native American, and Asian traditions. Often, objects of these minority cultures are seen as exotic, highly strung, and worthy, which renders profitability for the capitalist culture. It is harmful as it extends to racialism, racial extermination, and subjugation.
Cultural appropriation can be tricky, as sometimes, symbols of a particular culture are stereotyped or misinterpreted. For example, wearing of ‘Keffiyehs’ is seen as a fashion statement, hip, and worldly by the Westerners, whereas the same piece of clothing worn by an Arab is part of Arab and Islamic culture. Generally, if Muslims wear it, they are stereotyped into being dangerous, unfriendly, and symbols of terror, but if a Westerner wears it, it’s considered a privilege of being part of a dominant culture.
Native American rituals are being used and performed by Westerners in the name of world peace, spiritual attainment, and mutual benefits, which again is an appropriation because the real meaning behind the ancient rituals is not well understood. Performing these ceremonies and using the ritual objects twists these traditions and things from their original contexts into crude caricatures that are a smack in the face to the original practices of the ceremonies, with complete disregard about their history.
Dreadlocks done by Westerners in the name of fashion and style is totally different to an individual in the African, Indian, Buddhist, Rastfari, and Celtic culture as they symbolize spiritualism in these cultures.
It’s always an honor to be invited by someone of the opposite culture to partake in their cultural activities, but care must be taken that we do not misinterpret or misuse these cultural treasures out of their original context.
Cultural Appropriation of Native American Culture
When Pharrell Williams donned the Native American war bonnet for fashion magazine Elle UK, the internet exploded with angry hashtags of #NotHappy. Pharrell had to release an apologetic statement soon after, ”I respect and honor every kind of race, background, and culture. I am genuinely sorry”. This happens time and again in the celebrity world where an object respected by the original culture is deemed as a capitalist symbol.
Native American culture is rich in terms of clothing, artifacts, and religious symbols, these symbols are commonly appropriated in day-to-day life. It’s no surprise to the Native folks that non-Natives still feel ennobled to appropriate, carry, and distort consecrated indigenous cultural artifacts and symbols.
The hipsters donning the headdresses at the Coachella Music Festival don’t realize that it is reserved for venerated Native elders who have earned the right to wear one through their valor and honorable deeds. Both the feathers and face paint have a spiritual significance depending on their respective tribal protocol, hence non-Natives are not allowed to use it as a fashion statement because they have not earned the right for it. Headdresses bear deep spiritual implication akin to a burqa or yarmulke.
Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS)
To deal with the vast use of Native symbols in fashion garbs, currently, there is the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) where more than 500+ tribes have registered their trademarks against misuse. The American Indian Arts & Crafts Act makes it illegal “to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization.” Due to which many fashion outlets and brands have come under legal hassles.
Each tribe has a unique meaning imbibed with their art, array, crafts, and jewelry, and people should educate themselves before representing them in the mainstream media and society.
Cultural Appropriation in Fashion and Music
On January 15, 1994, when model Claudia Schiffer walked down the ramp in an evening dress in Paris designed by fashion enigma Karl Lagerfeld little did the fashion world realize that the so-called piece of love poem imprinted on the dress was actually a holy verse from the Quran. This proved scandalous and jeopardized Chanel’s exports to the Muslim world, the brand issued an apology immediately.
Victoria’s secret model Karlie Kloss strutted around in a leopard print bikini wearing a towering Native American-style headdress during the 2012 New York show and garnered the heat of the Natives, the brand had to issue an apology and pull down the controversial look from the fashion show’s broadcast for the same.
Music industry still has ‘white appeal’ this is explained by the fact that even though Elvis Presley predominantly ruled the rock-n-roll scene, his music was heavily inspired from the black artists who never received credit for their contributions.
Madonna, the queen of pop, is accused of borrowing from gay, black, Indian, and Latin American cultures. The pop queen scintillated in Indian saris, bindis, and clothing during a 1998 photo shoot for the Rolling Stone magazine and featured in the geisha-inspired photo shoot for Harper’s Bazaar magazine.
Former child star Miley Cyrus has undergone an image overhaul and has demoralized the African dance move ‘twerk’ into something that is sensual and inappropriate.
Katy Perry can be called the ‘Tasteless Queen of Cultural Appropriation’, as she has drawn criticism from Middle Eastern and Asian communities for donning a geisha costume during the American Music Awards and performing with Japanese props that were a far-cry from the Japanese culture, dressing as Cleopatra and performing with curvy mummies styled like hip-hop icons from cheesy music videos.
There are endless such examples from the celebrity brigade and the fashion circuit who rarely educate themselves about the cultural symbols and representations. They notoriously catapult to fame and leave behind the ethnic values, thereby hurting the sentiments of many.
The debate can go on and on, but the crux of it lies in the fact that instead of scandalizing the cultural symbols in the name of appreciation, just educate oneself appropriately.