It’s my culture, not a costume

By Sanya Mathur

Cultural appropriation is the term given to the act of borrowing from a culture that is not one’s own. This can include copying language, fashion, customs, or religion. The nature of discussion around this topic is particularly controversial where on one side, minority and ethnic groups find their cultures inappropriately appropriated, while on the other hand, many argue that this is an ‘era of oversensitivity’. The fact that it has just been Black History Month makes the topic arguably more relevant as this culture has seen a majority of adoption into pop(ular) culture, offensive or not.

Whether it is the controversy around ethnic hairstyle – like Kylie Jenner’s cornrows, or Miley Cyrus’ dreadlocks, or borrowing from hip-hop, as done by Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, or even something like the meme ‘Cash me outside how bow dah’, they all highlight how people shamelessly borrow from the ‘Black’ culture to seem ‘cool’, often without acknowledging its roots or cultural significance. We see ‘baddie aesthetics’ taken from African-American culture deemed as ‘cool’ and ‘edgy’ on Kendall Jenner.

We see Khloe Kardashian sporting Bantu knots and calling herself ‘Bantu Babe’, appropriating black culture despite having an African American brother-in-law and ex-husband. What makes it worse is that people of African origin are discriminated against for daring to display their cultural heritage. Women who inspired the ‘baddie’ aesthetic are called ‘ghetto’, and such behaviour isn’t only towards non-celebrities. For instance, when singer-actress, Zendaya was criticised for wearing dreadlocks to an award show; apparently, she looks as if ‘she smells like…weed.’ It goes so far as Rihanna wearing a dress in her music video and being called over-sexualised.

Cultural appropriation isn’t restricted to borrowing only from Black culture. Other minorities like Latinos, Indians, Native Indians and Asians find that their cultural heritage is misused to appear ‘cool’, ‘edgy’, ‘trendy’ or worse, for the sake of hilarity. Recent examples of offensive cultural appropriation include, but are unfortunately not limited to, the repeated use of the ‘bindi’ by artists such as Selena Gomez, Madonna and Gwen Stefani; the ‘colour run’ – a non-religious version of the Hindu festival of Holi; the borrowing of hoop earrings from the Chola culture; as well as the use of the Native American headdress as an accessory for a Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

Appropriation, I agree, may not always be offensive, especially when done respectfully and with a full regard for the culture that one is borrowing from. More often than not, it is not intended to be offensive. Unfortunately, however, people are not always tactful. Minority groups may often appear to be oversensitive but this is a reflection of the constant marginalization and denigration that they have had to face. While they, as minorities, are forced to ‘turn down’ their otherness, their cultures are continuously utilized to seem ‘trendy’ or ‘global’, especially with partial or no knowledge of their deeply held convictions. Borrowing from an indigenous culture that you appreciate does not immediately make it wrong but how does one know when one is being offensive? Where can one draw the line between appreciation and offensive appropriation?

In his article ‘Profound Offense and Cultural Appropriation’, James Young states that cultural appropriation is something that “may […] be offensive even when a member of the offended community does not witness it.” It requires one to be well aware of the context in which they seek to portray a certain cultural inheritance. So hopefully this Halloween, dreadlocks won’t be used as a costume or durags as a fashion statement. Try and understand the struggle that people have gone through to validate their culture, rather than dismiss it.

Honestly, it’s 2017, can’t we learn to be a little more inclusive?

Illustration: Faye Chua

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