The Western Culture of Cultural Appropriation
Now here we have a term with a stigma on its sleeve. And rightly so. As we draw closer to the end of October, one-night-only geishas, Arabs, Native Americans, zombies, vampires and ghouls plan their costumes for Halloween. And let’s not forget the more overt and wildly offensive adoptions of ‘blackface’ to portray African-American rappers and characters from ‘Orange is the New Black’. If you dressed up as a zombie from ‘The Walking Dead’ last year, what makes it acceptable to go as an Indian bride this year? The negative impact of cultural appropriation is, of course, not something you have to consider on a night out. Wearing a costume derivative of cultures that are hardly honoured in a room teeming with drunken students and white privilege everywhere is part of the fun. Bit harsh? Try justifying it.
The comments beneath the Instagram photograph of Khloe Kardashian, which she captioned ‘Sheik Pussy’, came as an unwelcome surprise to her. In this particular episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians, she was confused as to why it was considered offensive. The ignorance was honestly adorable. It doesn’t take a genius to understand why the caption itself is insensitive, but Scott Disick – and whoever the gentleman in the back is – are in equal contempt for misappropriating traditional Arabian clothing as Halloween costumes. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been as bad if he could pronounce ‘sheikh’ as well as he could ‘chic’.
Of course, cultural appropriation isn’t a seasonal issue; it doesn’t just happen during Halloween or at music festivals. On campus, in fashion magazines, in music videos, in Philosophy, teachers who try to convince a class of disinterested students that they ‘found themselves’ on that one trip to India, cultural appropriation is entrenched in Western society. Arguably, it has carved a problematic niche for itself. What is, perhaps, most disturbing is the justification for it. There are many half-considered responses when the issue is raised, i.e. ‘it’s a form of self-expression’, ‘it’s a celebration of our diverse community’, ‘fashion has no borders’, ‘it shows that I am interested in *insert name of an entire continent’s* culture’. The ‘identity is flexible’ one is quite popular too.
But what many white people who actively appropriate don’t understand, or don’t agree with, is that their body cannot use as a garment a culture that their race subjected to unspeakable brutality. We still live in its wake, and we cannot pretend that history has left no traces of itself on the present, or that politics do not affect our attitudes to one another. Neo-colonialism and white supremacy provide us with the capitalist system we thrive off, as underpaid and undervalued bodies are exhausted to create the very clothes that mock their culture. Yes, H&M, Zara, Primark and countless others, we’re looking at you. It is the sentiment behind cultural appropriation that needs addressing even more than the adoption of cultural artefacts themselves.
Minority cultures that are marginalised must first become validated and normalised in Western culture, uplifted, on their own terms, by people who belong to them. I am not saying that global communities in the West are by any means homogenous, nor do they need to express their culture in order to be validated, but it is unfair that often, our medium for global cultures in the West for fashion, for example, is a Caucasian model who somehow ‘reinvented’ the dashiki/sari/cornrows in a ‘bold’, ‘epic’, ‘edgy’ way. Subtle indicators that suggest it is ‘inspired’ by a particular country’s culture are expected to be sufficient to avoid backlash.
Arguably, a culture cannot (yet) be perceived as ‘celebrated’ by white/non-minority ethnic bodies, only socially validated. Some may disagree, and argue that cultures don’t need to be validated by Western society at all, which would be true, except we cannot pretend that representation doesn’t matter. Imagine it this way: as a child, you hear jokes about the bindi you see women in your family wear, the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the people in your community, YOUR NAME, only to grow up and watch ‘bohehmian-chic’ become a fast-growing trend, one followed by the same bullies? When glossy pages protest that a banarsi ‘Rebecca’ dress from Monsoon is in today, the implication is that it will be out tomorrow. To watch cultural and religious symbols go from stigmatised to trivialised to disposable makes it difficult to expect young adults who are born in to cultures that are deemed costumes or aesthetics to have a healthy sense of self in today’s society. Why is it that a South-Asian should have their identity slowly stripped as they ‘assimilate’ into dominant Western culture, where a Caucasian can slip in to the snippets of that identity without being stigmatised based on the racial stereotypes involved?
Accessing parts of cultures that have been heavily romanticised and thus made alien to us, without having to suffer racial discrimination that is experienced by people from that culture is a deeply sinister business. You only need to search the #reclaimthebindi movement on Twitter to learn how representation and celebration through familiar bodies has done the opposite, and empowered thousands of young girls. Some of these girls are OK with their culture being embraced by people of other races and cultures, but more than it being a means of experimentation and an edge to an outfit, they want people to LEARN about where they come from. They want people to eradicate stereotypes, rather than reinforce negative ones that label the clothes (and the people) exotic and mysterious, quaint or, as fashion magazines reiterate, ‘resort chic’.
To engage with actual people from the culture that adds a twist to your outfit every now and again, and perhaps learn what it’s like to live in your favourite summer location, arguably, seems far more necessary than any other form of ‘appreciation’. There is no issue with, for example, wearing a sari, or traditional Indian clothing to an Indian wedding, because a) you are adhering to the norms of that particular culture for a very limited period of time b) there is a balance of power, i.e. as you have been invited to a cultural event, you are permitted access to the clothing, and may (in some cases) even be expected, out of respect, to adopt it. Zara, Mango and the high street fashion fraternity’s recent obsession with the kameez, (long tunic with high waisted splits), however, is a monopolisation of the enduring sartorial symbol and national dress of South Asians. I’m sure wearing a leather jacket and statement necklace with it wouldn’t get you any funny looks on the train, though.
Donna Karan, in a bid to celebrate her love of New York and the eclectic sartorial choices of its women, released her Spring 2015 campaign ‘New York Nation’. Show notes described the collection as “multicoloured, multicultural, multitasking,” but some of the campaign shots that circulated were… questionable, to say the least. The runway show featured models of various racial backgrounds, however, the campaign shots told a different story. Cara Delevingne, fashion’s favourite it-girl, cool-girl, and apparently, every other girl under the sun, is centralised, whilst her gang of ethnically diverse models pose on the side-lines. Despite the fact that the curled baby-hairs with braids immediately bring to mind images of chola and African-American girls in hi-tops, hoops, and bandannas, not one is visible in the shots. That these girls are often deemed too ‘ghetto’ for the fashion industry to gain equal representation whereas elite, white bodies can authorise it as ‘high fashion’, shows that fashion is not exempt from the dictates of Western supremacy.
Designers are more than happy to ‘borrow’ (ahem, profit) from personal style choices, but all they have done in terms of ‘celebration’ of cultures is brandish them in the face of ethnic minority peoples and excluded them. Givenchy, Stella McCartney, Rodarte are all recent offenders, and everyone’s favourite culturally shocked machine, Katy Perry, front rows at such shows, because, let’s be honest, she epitomises them. The fashion industry, thus far, has given itself unpermitted access and creative liberty to cultures through exoticisation and fetishisation on runways and in magazines, but is not prepared to foreground or engage with people who belong to them.
Nitha Noor Kamran
Cover image: Huffington Post