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.
“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>.
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/>.
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>.
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/>.
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/>.