After not having written a post for a long time, I decided today I’d start writing again by diving head in to a really complicated issue. Before you read this article I’d like to stress that I am not expert, and by no means is my opinion the word of God on this particular subject.
Firstly, this article begs the question, what is cultural appropriation? In short, it’s when somebody of one culture adopts part of someone else’s culture as their own. Initially, there seems to be nothing wrong with this. What is the world, really, if not a place where others share cultures and allow us all to be culturally diverse? What is London, if not one of the most culturally and racially diverse places in the world?
The problem with cultural appropriation doesn’t derive from the desire to share and appreciate another culture that is not your own. The key word here, though, is appreciate and not appropriate. The main problem I have with cultural appropriation, (such as non-Hindu girls wearing bindis as a fashion statement, or white people having dreadlocks) is that many people have no respect for the cultural significance of what it is they’re wearing, or doing. Bindis are not a decorative fashion statement, they actually have a rich and complex history and cultural significance in India which can easily be researching by simple typing ‘Bindi’ into google. Here’s an example of what Bindis initially signified, (another word for bindi is also tilak):
1. The Brahmins, who were priests or academicians wore a tilak of white sandal wood signifying purity.
2. The Khatriyas (Kings and Warriors and Administrators) wore red tilak to signify valor.
3. The Vaishyas (Business men) wore a yellow tilak signifying prosperity.
4. The Sudra (service class) wore black tilak to signify service to the other classes.
As for white people having dreadlocks, this is a much debated and disputed issue. Personally, I don’t agree with it, as white people experience a privilege and freedom with hairstyles that is not extended to black people. I have read, and heard, stories from black people indicating that they have often been asked to change their hairstyles from dreadlocks and braids at work, because it was classified as making them look ‘unprofessional’ and therefore they would not be employed if they wore their hair in that style. I have not heard a single story concerning a white person being told to change their hair from styles such as dreadlocks, or box braids, because it looked unprofessional. White people are taking parts of black culture that they believe are fashionable, or appealing, and glorifying them not on the black people they stole the concept from, but on white people instead. We chop and choose which parts of a culture, a legacy, that we like, and decide which bits make us look more fashionable and edgy. Where people of colour have been dressing this way, or wearing their hair this way, for centuries, we white people act like we have just discovered it, and therefore through “OUR” discovery of this certain thing, it has suddenly become valuable.
This is the problem with cultural appropriation. White people taking things that people of colour have been doing, wearing, eating, saying, listening to for centuries and centuries and turning it into a trinket of fashion. E! Fashion Police presenter Giuliana Rancic said that Zendaya Coleman looked like she “smelt of patchouli or weed” because Zendaya wore her hair in dreadlocks for the Oscars, yet, when Kylie Jenner (who IS white, despite the controversy surrounding her ethnicity) posted Instragram pictures of her hair in dreadlocks for a photoshoot, nobody commented that Kylie Jenner looked like she smelt of weed or patchouli, but instead praised her for looking ‘so good.’
However, cultural appropriation does beg the question, where do we draw the line? What classifies as appropriation, and what classifies as appreciation? Is eating food from another culture appreciating the cuisine of that particular culture and part of the world, or is it appropriating if we do not only eat food from our own culture?
In my opinion, it is not cultural appropriation if you have an understanding and awareness of the cultural significance of the thing you are wearing/doing from another culture. As long as you understand, respect, and appreciate the significance of the thing, and also understand in situations where the cultural significance of this certain thing should actually prevent you from doing/wearing the thing in question because otherwise it would be disrespectful, you are not culturally appropriating and what you’re doing is not wrong. Amandla Stenberg produces an excellent video on this subject in question, which you can find here:
Amandla Stenberg explains the significance of cultural appropriation of black identity much better than I ever could, and being a black woman herself, she can better convey the significance of cultural appropriation and the damaging prejudices/stereotypes it encourages in ethnic minorities.