What exactly is cultural appropriation?

By Crescent Fujii

There was a recent controversy in the world-famous magazine Vogue. The photos of Karlie Kloss, an American supermodel, who was dressed as a Japanese geisha, or a female hostess, were heavily criticized as appropriating Japanese culture. The turmoil ended up with Karlie apologizing on Twitter for participating in that shoot. This controversy, however, made me question the meaning of cultural appropriation and what it means to live in a global world today. Furthermore, this problem carves out the difficulty of drawing the lines between cultural appropriation and art.

I once learned from my professor that cultural appropriation is when people take a specific aspect of a culture and make use of it without fully understanding the traditional and symbolic meanings of it. There are many cases today, where cultures are borrowed and applied in a way that depicts people’s shallow understanding of that culture, hence giving out a provocative message whether it is intended or not. With this knowledge in mind, I questioned whether Karlie Kloss’ pages on Vogue were appropriated incorrectly or disrespectfully.

Honestly, my first impression of the pages on Vogue was not bad at all. I thought it was artistic, for the beauty of Kloss, Japan, and the outfits were portrayed elegantly in the photos where tradition and modernity blended meticulously. I am from Japan, but nothing in particular about these photos seemed to disrespect Japanese culture.

I attempted to look for specific elements that may have triggered offensiveness in the photos, but I could not find any. Though the chances of Vogue doing arduous research on Japan before the shoot may be low, I did not receive the message that Vogue was trying to exasperate people through their photos either. Rather, the articles that criticized Kloss and Vogue were what offended me.

Many of the arguments in the articles argued that Vogue should have used a Japanese model, or “at least an Asian model” instead of a white model like Kloss. This argument is highly problematic, for it can be seen that the prejudicial assumption of “all Asians are the same” is hinted at behind that statement. Yes, it is true that Asian countries and people share similar culture; nevertheless, a kimono, for example, is a distinct Japanese culture that cannot be seen in other Asian countries. If it is considered as cultural appropriation when a white model wears traditional Japanese clothes, but it is not when another non-Japanese Asian does, that is beyond the problem of cultural appropriation: it is simple racism.

Moreover, if the photos were considered adequate if modeled by an Asian, it would mean that the controversy did not come from the way Japanese culture was used, such as the way the kimono was worn, or the way the hair was done, or the aesthetic features that created the overall ambiance. If the controversy merely came from the model’s race, then, would that even be ‘cultural appropriation’ to begin with? If the aspects of Japanese culture were used in a ‘correct’ context, or in a way that did not trivialize its culture, then the photos would not underlie the notion of ‘cultural appropriation.’

Why then, is it problematic for a white model to dress up as a geisha? Because Kloss is from the U.S., can she only wear clothes with red and white stripes, decorated with fifty stars? Do people ‘own’ a culture, are they even allowed to dispute others when they ‘use other people’s cultures’? Are cultures even ‘placed in peril’ when used by others? I believe that this is a problem that we all must think carefully about, especially because we are living in a global world today, where opportunities of sharing cultures are increasing. For example, people travel and experience the traditional culture of different countries. In the case of Japan, many people would go to Japan and wear a kimono, just like Kloss in her photo shoot. I guarantee that not all tourists do meticulous research on the history of a kimono; would this then, be a problem?

Moreover, this would leave us with the complexity of the relationship between art and cultural appropriation. Would art justify cultural appropriation? Or, will there have to be limits on art, so that people from different cultures will not be offended? Art is an ambiguous idea that raises the concept of cultural appropriation in a paradoxical way. In the case of the kimono, for example, there are recent trends in fashion of kimono-inspired cardigans, sold in brands that are not only targeted towards the Japanese. If a non-Japanese person wore a cardigan inspired by a Japanese culture, would that also be ‘cultural appropriation’?

It is difficult to set boundaries between ‘exposing oneself to’ and ‘appropriating’ culture. Cultural appropriation is partly decided by how people interpret the message. I acknowledge that there were many people who were offended by the photos in Vogue, and did not criticize them because Karlie Kloss is white, but because the Japanese culture was not used or depicted in the way they expected Vogue to. On the other hand, there are people like me who are completely fine with how the culture was used. However, it is immoral and racist to tell people to solely appreciate their ‘own culture.’ Yes, people from other cultures do have the right to make use of other cultures — but how rigorous do we need to be?

Photograph: Jenn Vargas via Flickr

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