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What is cultural appropriation?

by | May 24, 2019 | Blog | 0 comments


Today I would like to think about cultural appropriation, which I find confusing. Doesn’t the saying go that ‘copying is the sincerest form of flattery’? Apparently, in some circumstances it is considered insulting and decidedly ‘uncool’.

Cultural appropriation is the name given to a situation when a dominant culture takes things from another, oppressed culture. In this context, a dominant culture is the most prominent, accepted culture within a particular society, whereas oppression describes reiterated and prolonged discrimination. This is evidently different from cultural exchange, whereby aspects of a culture are borrowed or respectfully assimilated.

A quick search on Google brings up photographs of everyone from Kim Kardashian (braided hair) to Katy Perry (Geisha outfit), model Karlie Kloss (Native American headdress and turquoise and silver jewellery) to Khloé Kardashian (burqa), all getting slammed for being offensive. They all insist that they did not mean to upset anyone, and just loved these looks, nevertheless, they are criticised.

Some cases are very obvious, for example, Virginia governor Ralph Northam allegedly appeared in a yearbook photograph showing one person in what is known in the US as ‘blackface’ and another is wearing a robe associated with the Ku Klux Klan. This is shocking, and he has denied that he was one of these individuals, however, he did admit that he had made up his face with shoe polish as part of a Michael Jackson costume to appear in a dance competition. He loved Michael Jackson’s music and dance moves, but this also caused great disgust in the United States, where there is a long history of oppression, which I suppose is understandable. Although I think that there is a big difference between both actions, they were both denounced loudly and although he apologised and admitted that this was a serious mistake, this youthful faux-pas has certainly damaged his reputation and career.

This makes me think about the times I have been guilty, unconsciously, of cultural appropriation. For example, when I travelled in India, I couldn’t wait to wear the local clothes, and bought several Punjabi suits and kurta pyjamas, and I truly believed that I was showing respect by wearing these modest garments which I consider flattering and beautiful. What’s more, I am guilty of wearing sparkly bhindis, and when I was in Jamaica, I allowed a local girl to cornrow my hair. Oh! And now I think of it, I have also had henna tattoos in Morocco, which are beautiful. Did I offend anyone? Do I sound insensitive.

I suppose my actions are tantamount to cultural appropriation. I really don’t know. But I love exotic and different styles. If this is offensive to people of other cultures, do I have to give it up and stick to jeans and T-shirts? These are American anyway, not European. So, what am I supposed to wear? What about people who have ‘tribal’ and traditional Japanese tattoos? Are they offensive, too?

While researching this blog I even found a piece accusing British retailer M&S for selling an ‘inauthentic vegan biryani wrap’. Apparently, the wrap, which is made out of sweet potato, basmati rice, buckwheat and red pepper is offensive because it contains no meat or fish. Are spices out of bounds?

Frankly, I find the whole thing terribly confusing. I clearly don’t want to offend anyone, but I love experimenting with exotic flavours, I wear sarongs and half my jewellery collection consists of Hands of Fatima and carved jade Buddha pendants. Where is the line drawn? I wish I knew.

Juliet Allaway