Fads, Fashion, and Fine Lines : A Look at Cultural Appropriation in Modern Society. By Rosa Queen

The fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural celebration has long been a point of controversy for those living in melting-pot nations, where foreign assimilation into Western culture is the norm. Cultural appropriation is seen as the adoption of elements such as symbols, artifacts and practices from another culture. This is especially true of dominant cultures appropriating parts of minority cultures. However, when this dominant culture uses these symbols without any respect for the historical, cultural and traditional concepts behind these artifacts, lines are crossed.

In Chelsea Vowel’s piece, “An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses,” the reader gets some insight into the separation between appropriation and appreciation of Indigenous culture. In her article, Vowel brings up the point that there are several restricted symbols in Western culture that cannot be mimicked without punishment, such as a doctorate degree, and in the same way, there exists several artifacts from Native culture that similarly should not be mimicked as they are symbols of achievement. However, even in light of this parallel, it is becoming more and more mainstream to see models adorning headdresses in fashion shoots, sporting Native style face paint and wearing Métis sashes.

From this article, one can see several patterns emerging in the appropriation of such a rich heritage. Firstly, we see the portrayal of Indigenous culture as wild, savage and uncivilized and the use of their symbols promote similar stereotypes. One can also ascertain that the appropriation of such emblems was not consented upon by the indigenous peoples from whom these symbols come from. And finally we see the utilization of these symbols to debase these cultures, such as the use of native headdresses in the 2012 Victoria Secret Fashion show, where these symbols are used to fetishize and exotify these peoples (CBC News,”Victoria’s Secret … headdress”).   All in all, we see that this stereotyping, theft and disrespect of Indigenous cultures in no way “appreciates” what these peoples have to offer.

But this kind of appropriation is not just linked to the use of Native symbols, we see the same patterns around the world. Western culture’s use and abuse of cultural symbols and heritage without any knowledge of their value only go to further cheapen their meanings. We see this in the appropriation of Maori warrior tattoos, Katy Perry dressing as a geisha for the 2013 AMAs, Urban Outfitters selling tights with Hindu gods printed on them and much more. This is clearly not a problem that has passed, appropriation has been reaching its peak as of late through the use of such cultural symbols for the shear purpose of aesthetics or sexualisation. Just a casual look at pop culture reveals examples such as Lady Gaga’s hyper-sexualisation of the burqa and its demeaning reception (Aimen, “Dear Lady Gaga, ‘… message”).

But what does this all mean? How is this not just examples of cultural exchange? Why is this a problem?

Cultural appropriation only goes to further marginalize minorities by taking their respected symbols and commercializing them. Turning these artifacts into items of fads and trends only go to further disrespect and degrade these cultures by disvaluing their symbols. On top of this, the use of cultural artifacts in this manner also goes to promote negative stereotypes of these peoples (Nittle, “What Is … Wrong?”). This of course plays into a common pattern of racism, and disempowering the beliefs of others by cheapening objects or ideas that are sacred in an ethnocentric manner. And like reverse racism, there is no such thing as appropriating Western cultures. The classic argument against cultural appropriation usually reads along the lines of “If natives speak English, why can’t I wear a warbonnet?” or “If Muslims can wear suits to the office, why can’t I wear a see-through burqa?” The main counter-argument lies in the reason behind these acts. Native Americans were forced through residential schools to speak English and wear European clothes which is still raw in the minds of many. And for other minorities, the way to find a place in white-collar Western society today is to wear a suit, as other cultural forms of dress are systematically looked down upon and considered “unprofessional.” These aren’t necessarily cases of appropriation, more so adaptation to fit into the ethnocentric Western cultural model. Once again, we must look at the power structure of these acts of appropriation. The general trend is white cultures (traditionally having more power) taking emblems from marginalized cultures in order to market them not as a celebration, but for commercialization.

These trends and fads are especially dehumanizing in the cases of appropriation from cultures with a history of colonialism and racist violence, providing more evidence towards white culture taking from other cultures that it deems is lesser. Cultural appropriation further highlights the imbalance of power between the previously colonized and their ex-colonizers, such as that of the case of Indigenous peoples (Uwujaren “The Difference … Appropriation”). Although some decolonization has occurred in the sense of nations and boundaries, the long lasting views of these peoples will continue to be overshadowed by Western perception and thus the effects of colonization lives on.

What cultural appropriation shows us is that melting pot nations have built their cultures, not on multiculturalism, but assimilation. In this way, Western culture is taken as the norm and standard. This enables Western cultures to single out the heritage of other peoples in order to sensationalize and commercialize, rather than fostering understanding. The significance of such a mindset being fostered in youth is that cultural appropriation allows for the propagation of racism, racial violence and white privilege. As Vowel mentioned in her article, acknowledgement and apology is what is needed now by society in order to start righting the wrongs of cultural appropriation. Unfortunately these are simply bandage fixes for an overarching problem of ethnocentrism. Mutual respect, the abolishment of Western xenophobia and cultural understanding offer us more long term solutions, but are much harder to accomplish due to the amount of time needed to heal these wounds. Perhaps in due time, we will be able to more easily navigate the line between appropriation and appreciation through ongoing cultural education and giving the respect due to these marginalized peoples.

Rosa Queen

Works Cited:

“Victoria’s Secret Apologizes for Use of Headdress.” CBC News. CBC/Radio Canada, 13 Nov. 2012. Web. 7 Mar. 2015. <http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/victoria-s-secret-apologizes-for-use-of-headdress-1.1130549&gt;.

Aimen, Umema. “Dear Lady Gaga, ‘Burqa’ Sends the Wrong Message.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 19 Aug. 2013. Web. 8 Mar. 2015. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/wp/2013/08/19/dear-lady-gaga-burqa-sends-the-wrong-message/&gt;.

Nittle, Nadra. “What Is Cultural Appropriation and Why Is It Wrong?” About News: Race Relations. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <http://racerelations.about.com/od/diversitymatters/fl/What-Is-Cultural-Appropriation-and-Why-Is-It-Wrong.htm&gt;.

Uwujaren, Jarune. “The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation.” Everyday Feminism. 30 Sept. 2013. Web. 9 Mar. 2015. <http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/09/cultural-exchange-and-cultural-appropriation/&gt;.

Vowel, Chelsea. “An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdress.” Âpihtawikosisân: Law language, life: A Plains Cree speaking Metis Woman in Montreal. WordPress. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. < http://apihtawikosisan.com/hall-of-shame/an-open-letter-to-non-natives-in-headdresses/&gt;.

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6 thoughts on “Fads, Fashion, and Fine Lines : A Look at Cultural Appropriation in Modern Society. By Rosa Queen

  1. Moira

    Hi Rosa! Thank you for your post – I really enjoyed reading it. We did the same article, but you took a much different approach! I really liked your observations on assimilation and appropriation. We often refer to Canada as a “cultural mosaic”, but you are totally correct in saying that Western whiteness is the norm, and assimilation is a reality. This point was followed well by the observation that we then appropriate particular parts of the various cultures within Canada and use them for fun and for profit without respect and consideration for their meaning.
    Thank you as well for providing a counterpoint to the ever popular “If they do ____, why can’t we do _____?” argument. It is a wonderful point, and something that can start a really good conversation about concepts like “reverse racism”. Power dynamics are always so critical to consider. Finally, you state that this problem is not getting any better (and indeed it is getting worse). This is a million dollar question, but…. what do you think might put us on the track to reparation? How might we, as a country, become more sensitive and respectful? Ad campaigns? Legislation? Activism?

    Again, thank you for your post, and I look forward to reading more from you in the future!

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    1. gndsgirl11 Post author

      Good question Moira!
      I believe one of the key ways of breaking this barrier between cultural insensitivity and understanding is through proper representation in the government, media etc. These institutional bodies are primarily consistent of individuals from the white hegemonic masculine population. In order to truly be able to bridge the gap towards culture understanding and reducing acts such as appropriation and assimilation, this power structure needs to de-constructed. If we are able to reduce the racist dynamics within these bodies through the introduction of more coloured individuals into high ranking positions, we will be able to draw attention to these issues. Although I would like to believe that not all the pre-existing members of the government are racist inherently, I do believe that the introduction of individuals that have faced this kind of insensitivity would allow them to pass on their knowledge and gain attention towards these causes. Following this course of action, I believe that media is the most powerful ally that we would have in order to create more accepting and sensitive environment for minorities. Although activism and legislation could aid in this uphill battle, I do believe that the best method for getting to the cyber-connected citizens of today is through the media.

      Thanks for the question!
      -Rosa Queen

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  2. Elin

    Hi Rosa Queen,

    I thought that your article was well researched, interesting and thought provoking – great job! The parallel that you employed to highlight and illustrate both examples of, and variation of how, restricted symbols are internalized between Western and Indigenous culture was thoughtfully executed. I further enjoyed your inclusion of relevant and current examples of appropriation, in respect to Indigenous cultures, for example your mention of the Victoria Secret Fashion Show, Maori warrior tattoos and Katy Perry’s outfit choices, as they clearly illustrated the prevalence that such forms of appropriation have in culture. The clarity and articulation that you used in respect to clearly identifying the detrimental impact and ramifications that cultural appropriation has on culture and peoples of minorities, I thought, strengthened the quality of your piece as it showcased the depth of your research. I further thought that the astute parallel made between reverse racism and inability to appropriate Western Culture was quite an interesting and thought provoking remark. What do you think the best course of action would be to mitigate the prevalence of assimilation in culture today?

    ~Elin.

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    1. gndsgirl11 Post author

      Hi Elin,

      To address your question, I think that the best course of action towards reducing assimilation is to reduce xenophobia and also reduce ethnocentrism. As long as any society thinks that they are the best, they will not be accepting towards other cultures as they are seen as foreign and lesser. Thus, upon inclusion of new members to this society from other cultures, there will be an expectation to convert to the “better culture” as there is not mutual respect for the culture they came from. So at the end of the day, the best way to mitigate the amount of assimilation occurring in society today would be through acceptance and understanding of other cultures as well as their symbols.
      GREAT QUESTION!
      -Rosa Queen

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  3. gndsgirl11 Post author

    Hi Rosa Queen,

    I found your blog to be very interesting, and I liked the contrast in writing style and topics touched upon between this blog and the other blog about this article. I thought your blog was very informative in the respect to what cultural appropriation tells us about how our societies have been formed. I also thought it was very interesting when you touched upon the separation of appropriation and appreciation of indigenous culture. Like I mentioned on Moira’s post, I have learned about indigenous culture in my global development class but I have never learned about the angle that is taken in this article, which you have touched upon further in your blog. I agree with your point saying “although some decolonization has occurred in the sense of nations and boundaries, the long lasting views of these peoples will continue to be overshadowed by Western perception and thus the effects of colonization lives on”. It is a very interesting and very true point. Western societies overpower other nations, and will continue to as long as there are people who continue to hold these views about indigenous peoples. For instance, the fact that there are thousands of missing indigenous women today and the government will not take any course of action in order to help find them, and the fact that the last residence school was closed in 1996, yet there are still forms of residence schools today.

    Thank you very much for your insight,

    gndsgirl11

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  4. Darkling

    Hi Rosa,
    Great post! I found your approach to the article really interesting: your decision to focus more broadly on cultural appropriation and ethnocentrism really helped to underscore the way that racial inequity and systemic oppression function within our society. The exotification and fetishization of marginalized cultures and bodies truly contributes to sexual and social violence, because it allows white people to perceive racialized people as other, and as less than human. One thing you touched on that was particularly interesting is the way that assimilation functions as compared to appropriation: in our society, people of colour are not allowed to participate in their own cultural practices without facing extreme social ramifications. As a very light skin mixed person, I have been spared much of the harassment and degradation associated with being a person of colour, but I definitely have noticed the pressure to assimilate, as well as the harmful impact of exotification. When attempting to compliment me, white people often refer to my appearance as “exotic,” despite my expressed discomfort with the term, which is very othering, and positions whiteness as a default. In regard to assimilation, I find that being a person of colour, you are always expected to aspire to and adhere to whiteness: throughout my life I have experienced ridicule for my cultural dishes, and was taught from a young age not to dress in traditional clothing. Meanwhile, white people can comfortably pick and choose elements of marginalized cultures that they deem attractive and desirable, and use them without repercussions. My mother could not wear locs because her workplace sees them as “unprofessional and dirty,” but white people can matt their hair in a way that is ACTUALLY unhygienic (as their hair texture is not equipped for locs) and call their style spiritual. An Indian girl wearing the bindi will face harassment, while a white girl is considered cute and chic for wearing it. White people wear “native” print shirts from Urban Outfitters and get dreamcatcher tattoos while many indigenous people have had their language and traditions stolen from them through the residential school system. What stands out about this to me is that many of these are not restricted symbols: therefore, do you believe that these symbols or items or styles do not necessarily have to have deep cultural significance in order to be appropriated? I believe that, when decontextualized and altered to fit into white fashion or spirituality, the use of any of these items or styles outside of their culture of origin can still be extremely harmful. Many unrestricted symbols could be shared if the exchange were lateral, but in our current social context, this is not the case. Anyway, thank you for writing this piece! I enjoyed reading it, and you said a lot of really interesting and thought provoking things!

    Darkling

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