Cultural appropriation has been an ongoing conversation for years now, and yet, there is still much dispute revolving around it. The line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is a fine one and often blurred. There’s no right or wrong answer to it. There’s no guideline as to what is acceptable and what is offensive.
One’s culture is not another’s costume.
So, what amounts to cultural appropriation exactly? It involves assuming certain features of minority culture in order to satisfy one’s personal interest or to gain profit. On the other hand, cultural appreciation is incorporating elements of another’s culture in a way that honours and respect said culture. It’s all in the acknowledgement of the context and history of cultural practices.
The underlying problem of cultural appropriation lies in the issue of oppression and mistreatment of minority groups by privileged members of the society. Often times, people of colour are criticised, harassed and discriminated because of an article of clothing and yet said garment would be ripped off by the ‘dominant culture’ and sugar-coated as aesthetically pleasing. It reduces the hardship of being a minority to nothing.
Take Gucci for an instance. Just last year, the Italian luxury brand faced massive backlash for the infamous ‘Indy Turban’ which was donned by white models without even a single representation of brown models. Many Sikhs voiced out their dissatisfaction as the ‘blue turban’ closely resembled the traditional headpiece of the Sikh culture, which is a symbol of faith. For such a sacred garment to be misappropriated and monetised, it is no wonder that an uproar would arise among the Sikh community.
Arguably, people in the artistic field of work, such as designers, musicians, etc, derive inspiration from just about anywhere, and inevitably, this would include the myriad of cultures around the world. Essence of another’s culture may surface in such works of art, leading to controversial issues. Such controversies can however be avoided by incorporating narratives of the culture’s origins, encouraging representation of varied ethnic group and giving credits where its due. And this should be done from the get-go, not as an afterthought.
Some would retaliate by stating that cultural appropriation happens the other way around as well, in other words, minority groups adopting Western cultures (a la Marc Jacobs). However, this argument is entirely misguided as such scenario occurs due to colonisation and the widespread of Eurocentric views. Ultimately, it boils to down to the minority community being pressured into conforming with the ‘Western ideal’.
Cultural appropriation can also be seen in the IG-sphere. Once, I came cross a public figure, who claims to love East Asian culture, dressed in a mini dress which bears a resemble to a kimono (traditional Japanese garment). Little did she know, that particular brand is notorious for sexualising several traditional clothing. Even the Chinese qipao/cheongsam was misappropriated and portrayed in an overtly-sexy manner by said brand.
The Japanese culture is often misappropriated, especially kimonos. However, Cle de Peau Beaute showcased the beauty and strength of the Japanese culture in an authentic light through its recent holiday collection, which features the works of a Japanese art studio as well as a Japanese painter. This is an excellent illustration of cultural appreciation whereby actual representation of Japanese people was present in the making of Japanese-influenced products.
Certain countries are home to diverse cultures and hence, cultural harmony is somewhat the norm. However, at the same time, racial discrimination has also been prevalent (yes, in this age and day). A country that propagates cultural unification and largely profit from tourism but beneath the surface, its people struggles with racial discrimination, be it in education or employment. Ironic, no?
Ask yourself, is a ‘Bollywood-themed’ event the same as attending an actual Indian ceremony?
Another example that is close to heart is the use of henna/mehndi. During special occasions and as the festive season approaches, it is not uncommon for people of all races to get henna done in the spirit of celebration. However, comments along the line of “henna looks better on lighter skin rather than on darker skin tones” crosses the boundary of appreciation and becomes downright offensive. It’s almost like denying Indians of their cultural identity.
The key towards cultural appreciation instead of appropriation is to simply educate yourself regarding the core of cultural practices. Don’t stay ignorant and act insensitively. Everything is available at your fingertips. Let’s open up a transparent conversation and share our cultural history and listen to each other’s stories. If you find yourself passing racist remarks casually or belittling minor ethnic group, yet dress up in said ethnic’s attire, you may need to reflect on yourself.