The New Exchange: What Defines Appropriation?
IMAGE VIA OHIO UNIVERSITY
Every year around this time, the number of Google searches containing two words rapidly increases: cultural appropriation. It’s a topic that gets flung around intellectual groups and news stations, but whose parameters have inevitably fallen into the dust. Halloween comes, and with it arrives the barrage of headdresses, long silks, and other ethnic costuming promoted by the clothing industry. So, at what point does that little girl’s kimono become racist? She didn’t mean any harm by it, so how can she be accused of anything besides pure intentions? If we are trying to become a more evolved society of overlapping cultures, how does the celebration of one culture also attack its origins?
The answer, unwaveringly, lies in the approach, not the actions themselves. When choosing to integrate a piece of another culture into your dress or mannerisms, some will say you have to run through an evaluation of what that item or symbol may represent. Essentially, it’s the consideration of whether what you want to integrate has a higher, or potentially sacred, meaning in that culture, making it inappropriate to be worn without understanding its true purpose. This is relevant in the case of the Native American headdress, a significant symbol in indigenous culture. According to the American Indian Heritage Foundation, headdresses, alternatively called war bonnets, were reserved for the most powerful and influential members of the tribe. They are symbols of pride where feathers are added one by one, with each earned through an act of bravery. In this instance, cultural appropriation is definite as it includes the integration of an article of clothing that is not just worn in its native culture, but earned, making it disrespectful for those who did not complete any acts of honor.
However, this is an easily defined case in comparison to other areas of accused cultural appropriation. While religious symbols often have a code or set of laws that governs how they should be respected, the same does not go for other aspects of culture, including music, food, and mannerisms. This is relevant in African American culture, where events like Miley Cyrus’s infamous twerking performance at the 2013 VMAs sparked debate of whether or not Cyrus displayed cultural appropriation. Twerking, being a form of dancing native to the black community in the US, was claimed to be outside of Cyrus’s reach as a white woman. Similar instances have also occurred in popular media, from Madonna’s use of “voguing”, to Kylie Jenner’s cornrows, to the mass use of “black woman” verbiage among gay men. Each of the examples include a white person taking on aspects of the African American community, subsequently causing backlash from this community. Every culture, whether Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Native American, or otherwise, has been claimed to have culturally appropriated for the sake of an uneducated trend.
I believe that there is a distinct line between the appreciation of other cultures and using these other cultures as a costume. No aspect of a community, especially religious ones, should be turned into a costume for someone else’s entertainment. Performers, being tasked with great responsibility due to the size of their audiences, toe a careful line between the appreciation of culture and the appropriation of it. However, I also believe that we must stop using cultural appropriation as a buzzword in order to ‘other’ different cultures. We must be respectful, we must give credit where it is due and consider the history and struggles of each of these cultures.
Ultimately, the dream of a more united public and a more united culture demands that the barriers that exist between different races and different cultures must be brought down. It is not appropriation to appreciate rap music if you are white, the same way it is not appropriation for someone who is an Iranian native to frequent an Irish restaurant. These examples may seem crude, as well as obvious, but they are repeating the same rhetoric that we must stop trying to separate our cultures from other people. These divisions are the same ones that lead us to experience issues of violence, profiling, and racist assumptions. In order to lessen these tensions, we must be able to maintain a constant flow of shared cultures, yet a flow where the interactions between all of these cultures remains respectful and educated.