Cultural appropriation is a historically contested idea. It's rooted in the seeds of colonialism where white colonialists looted and stole cultural artefacts. There are too many examples to count, but here's just a few - in the 1800s, unknown thousands of graves were excavated as Western art dealers went to extremes to collect Native American treasures. Bronzes and carved tusks that were stolen and sold in European markets after being taken from Benin. The Asante goldweights are currently available to see at the V&A in London after having been looted from Ghana. The museum is currently under pressure to accurately explain the nature of its collections, including items that were stolen by British forces.
Christopher Columbus once said that “Gold is a treasure and he who possesses it does all he wishes… When there are such lands there should be profitable things without number.” His words might not directly relate to culture appropriation, but they do highlight the possessive mindset that many imperialists had in conquering and taking for themselves things that belong to other countries and culture.
Today, cultural appropriation takes many forms – we see it at music festivals, where revellers sometimes wear traditional outfits belonging to other people’s culture. We see it in fashion – in 2019, Gucci was berated for selling a £600 turban which was seen as insensitive towards the Sikh culture. Dolce & Gabbana famously faced backlash after posting videos of a Chinese model trying to eat pasta and pizza with chopsticks as part of its Shanghai campaign. Victoria’s Secret is a regular offender, often sending models out in tribal tropes, from feather headdresses and suede fringing to seed bead jewellery.
We see it a lot in the celebrity world - take Justin Bieber’s spring selfie of his dreadlocked hair, for example, a hairstyle previously worn by Miley Cyrus at the 2015 VMAs. Gwen Stefani has been criticised for her long-standing legacy of cultural appropriation over her Harajuku Girls backing dancers. Taylor Swift was rightly chastised after she appropriated Beyonce’s iconic Coachella set at the 2019 Billboard Awards. Even Adele came under fire in 2020 after she shared an Instagram picture of her wearing a traditional African hairstyle at what would have been Notting Hill Carnival.
The appropriation vs appreciation debate is a nuanced one, but perhaps the easiest way of describing the difference is this – appropriation either mocks or ridicules a culture, or involves copying the influences, be it music, lifestyle or fashion, and using it for personal gain. The important aspect of determining cultural appropriation is when borrowing becomes exploitation. Are you respecting the culture or ripping it off? Let’s go back to the Adele example - the Bantu knots that Adele wore are not the reason for her success. The post was shared in tribute to Notting Hill Carnival – she wasn’t exploiting or profiting from her hairstyle or Jamaican bikini top. This was about celebrating an event that gives oppressed Black communities space and an opportunity to express themselves. It was an example of cultural appreciation, rather than appropriation.
“Full appreciation involves understanding,” said James Young, professor of philosophy at University of Victory and author of Culture Appropriation in the Arts. “For example, a musical style involves knowing something about the history of the style, the conventions it employs, the role that it plays in a culture, and what it is used to express. Many examples can be given of people who have become appreciators or connoisseurs of another culture’s products. One lovely example is found in Edmund de Waal’s book, Hare with the Amber Eyes: here a Jewish family appreciates Japanese netsuke sculptures. They do not appropriate since they do not produce their own netsuke sculptures.”
It’s important to understand why cultural appropriation an issue is for so many marginalised communities. If you’re going to bring aspects of a certain culture into your life, it’s crucial to understand how they got there – in other words, the historical context. You need to put the work in. “Unobjectionable appropriation begins with genuine appreciation which involves understanding,” continues Professor Young. “If one understands some cultural product, one is unlikely to use it in offensive or otherwise objectionable ways. For example, one will be less likely to misuse something that is considered sacred if one understands it. Permission may be required in some situations. Deference to and respect for the experts in a culture is essential. This involves not presenting oneself as an expert.”
Young cites Eminem as a musician who has successfully engaged in cultural appropriation, who is “accepted as a successful practitioner of an African American musical style by African American musicians. He respects the culture from which he has appropriated and is in turn, respected.”
Culture appropriation is hurtful to those whose culture is stolen, especially given the historic mistreatment of so many minorities and their respective traditions. Black women, for example, have continued to be one of the most marginalised communities in the UK and US and other places across the West. Ample statistics prove the discrepancy and inequalities when it comes to their economics, and health. Our appearance has been routinely mocked and disrespected. I remember certain Black hairstyles were not acceptable at my school, whereas Kim Kardashian can go on to wear African braids without issue - a clear example of how one group can be penalised for wearing them while the other can have theirs received as ‘cool’ or ‘fashionable’.
Sharing and being part of each other’s cultures is a healthy way for society to co-exist and learn about each other. It is only when we do so without respect for the cultural contributions that marginalised groups have and continue to offer, or don't bother to understand the issues that they face, that an act of appreciation turns into appropriation. It’s time we did the work.
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