Image from newstatesman.com
Living in the 21st century has its perks, am I right?! You can travel easily and cheaply to all parts of the globe, the internet gives you new and exciting armchair travels daily and you can find out pretty much anything and everything you ever wanted to know about a particular place or culture. Which is why in this day and age there should be no excuse/it is pretty embarrassing and just plain weird when people/brands/celebrities offend a culture or ethnicity through cultural appropriation. Read on to find out how you can kindly and respectfully appreciate other people’s cultures without veering into offensive appropriation territory.
So what is cultural appropriation?
A simple definition for cultural appropriation can be hard to thrash out, but we’ll do our best;
Cultural Appropriation: When a person or group of people take an important element from a culture or race other than their own and use it outside of its original context, or, in a a way that ignores its cultural significance. Often the element is used as a fashion statement or trend. Sometimes cultural appropriation is pretty harmless while at other times it is undeniably racist.
Elements that are often culturally appropriated include traditional dress and decoration, music, celebrations, dance, art and religion.
Cultural appropriation has a lot to do with history, colonialism and power. History shows that cultural appropriation usually involves a dominant culture taking elements from a minority, and often a repressed one. It can be very offensive and hurtful. People who adopt cultural elements with little regard for their origin, whether they intend to or not, are ignoring the significance and importance of that element, and in turn the culture it belongs to.
Some examples of cultural appropriation:
There are heaps of different kinds of cultural appropriation, here are a few examples to get you thinking.
Native American War Bonnet
Pharrell on the cover of Elle. Image from thedailybeast.com
Frequently worn by ‘trendy’ music festival goers the world over, celebrities on magazine covers and models on the runway.
Where is it from? The war bonnet has been worn by the chief’s of native american tribes for hundreds of years. The war bonnet is made from eagle feathers awarded to the chief for their accomplishments, such as acts of courage, political gains for the tribe or received as gifts of gratitude. A headdress is only created after the person has received many eagle feathers, and is only worn by the spiritual or political leader of a tribe.
Celebrities wearing the bindi at various music festivals. Image from medium.com
For years pop stars have been wearing bindis as temporary, exotic and sensual jewelry, Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Miley and Selena Gomez are just a few examples. But the bindi doesn’t actually represent those things.
Where is it from? The bindi belongs to to many religious groups originating in and around India and South East Asia, they are sometimes referred to as a third eye, representing connections to a higher consciousness, in other cultures they may signify a women’s marital status or a persons’ place in society.
The Tribal Tattoo
Tattoos in many Asian and Pacific Islander cultures have very specific cultural and religious meanings. They are mostly tattooed by spiritual leaders in communities and are used to protect the wearer and signify things like rank and position in a community. It gets murky when people from other cultures start to get these very meaningful traditional tattoos on their bodies just ‘cos they think they are pretty.
Katy Perry, image from sheknows.com
Obviously Halloween in Australia is not celebrated as enthusiastically as it is in America, but the same advice applies for dress up parties. Dressing up as a character is fun, thinking that you can dress and find a costume that represents an entire culture or race is not, it’s stereotyping. Stereotyping a culture like this is racism and racism hurts.
So what can you do to avoid offending people by appropriating culture?
The best thing is to do to your homework. Jump on the internet, phone a brainy friend or head to the library to find out why certain items are significant to a culture, answers are everywhere. Interrupt Mag has a great article to help you avoid crossing over from appreciation to appropriation.
At the end of the day if you are thinking about popping a culturally significant *thing* on your body just because you think it is pretty or intriguing then its probably best to find something else to party and dance in, cos like it or not, culture is not a trend, it’s way more interesting than that.
Miriam is a Melbourne gal who loves the beach, camping and cooking up big feasts in her tiny kitchen. She is a happy feminist and writes for Rosie.