My Culture Is Not Your Fashion - thoughts on cultural appropriation
January 5, 2018
A few weeks ago, I strolled down the lanes of Brighton in the UK. In the narrow alleyways, countless little independent stores are selling jewelry, clothes, books, art, and vinyl; vegan cafes lure next to thrift stores, local art galleries, tattoo studios, and stationary shops.
One store particularly caught my attention. It sold Native American* arts and crafts. A sign advertised tarot readings and healing sessions. Through a heavy wooden and beautifully carved door frame, I entered the shop. The inside was a breathtaking explosion of Native American jewelry, feathers, dream catchers, clothing, pottery, totems, sand art, stones, and instruments. Soft flute music and the scent of incents, palo santo, and essential oils lulled the customers into the right mood. In one corner stood a postcard rack with old sepia pictures of Native Americans, mostly chiefs and warriors in all their fierce glory.
One part of me loved the shop and wanted to buy one hundred things, but I also felt a slight pinch of discomfort that I could not immediately pin down. I kept looking around for information, for the (hi-)stories behind the products, for any sign of differentiation of which item came from which group or tribe, who had made the products, where and for which purpose. Who benefited from the purchases, how were the products being traded, and why were there no signs of any current-day struggles of Native Americans that the shop keepers, and thus the customer, would support? The only hint at the trading relationship that I spotted made me chuckle - it was a sticker reading support small businesses, and American Express cards welcome, next to a faded postcard picture of a Native American warrior, probably taken a hundred or so years ago. A cliché image completely out of context. I wouldn't have thought anything bad if this had been the door to a shop run by Native Americans. But seeing it in a spiritual shop run by white Brits, it somehow felt wrong.
This incident caused me to start thinking about cultural appropriation.** I know that the topic has been widely discussed in recent years, so if you are somewhat familiar with the debates, you probably won't find much new in this post. But somehow, I never engaged with it and, seeing just how much has been said and written about it, it is curious how I could overlook it for so long.
One potential reason for this is that the issue of cultural appropriation features way less prominently in European media and discourse (with exception of the U.K.) than it does in the U.S. In Germany, cultural appropriation (dt. kulturelle Aneignung) is only really discussed by the radical left and even there has proved to be heavily divisive. The available mainstream media pieces mostly take up debates from the U.S. American context, oftentimes in a mocking tone that implies Are you guys serious???. Die ZEIT giggles about a journalist who criticized the sale of "Asian salad" (wrongly categorizing it under Kulturelle Aneignung); DER SPIEGEL mocks "Wannabe Native Americans" (white people claiming to be Indians) without even mentioning cultural appropriation, while painting a picture of Native Americans as opportunistic and rich due to their gambling businesses; the FAZ sums up recent debates about cultural appropriation in the U.S. dripping with irony, and even some authors of the leftist TAZ express nothing but mockery and resentment.
Although I feel unsure about many accusations of cultural appropriation, I think that these articles give an extremely distorted account of the issues at stake and it makes me sad that major German newspapers choose to address these issues in such a condescending way.*** I do not want to take up the whole debate in this post but rather just point at a couple of concrete topics that I came across and tried to engage with on an intellectual, emotional, and artistic level.
I can easily see why it is problematic when young and mostly white people wear fake Native American war bonnets as festival gear. Originally, these war bonnets are sacred spiritual and cultural items whose use is heavily restricted. Take that plus the blood-stained history of genocide as well as the ongoing marginalization and oppression of Native Americans by the white population today - and I think there is no doubt that wearing a headdress (potentially completed with "war paint" and "totems") while staggering around drunk and high on a music festival is disrespectful and highly culturally insensitive. Not even Pharell William as a black person with (some) Native American heritage didn't get away with it when he posed with a headdress for ELLE because "having an American Indian ancestor or relative isn't a license to use that relative's culture spontaneously and without context" (and for commercial self-promotion, I would add).
Next, I skimmed through heated discussions about dreadlocks and cornrows. Wait what?! I thought. Dreadlocks and cornrows? When I think of dreadlocks, the first thing coming to my mind is white dudes with knitted scarfs and goa pants (which speaks for itself, I guess). When I think of cornrows, I think of Alicia Keys, Snoop Dog, and Serena Williams. What white girls have on their heads, I do not even perceive as cornrows, more as mostly sad-looking, flimsy, unflattering attempts of doing braids. So what is problematic about this? This great little clip explains it quite well.
So the reason why many black people disapprove of white people wearing dreadlocks and cornrows is that it takes a part of their culture and turns it into something fashionable. Whereas a black person might be subject to ridicule, judgement, stereotyping and the respective negative consequences due to their hairstyle, a white person adopting that very style may be seen as trendy, edgy, cool, and actually benefit from their looks. I also can understand why black women feel offended and hurt when beautifully braiding their hair has been an integral part of their culture and identity since forever but suddenly fashion magazines declare cornrows as "summer's hottest hair trend" - only after it has been spotted on white models and stars.
The same goes for hoop earrings. What?! I thought, pretty much every single female I know owns a pair of hoops or has done so in the past, including myself. So why are Latina women upset about white people wearing hoops? The reasoning is similar to the one against white people and dreadlocks/cornrows. What I didn't know was that for many Latina women, hoops are part of their culture and thus their identity and thus their struggles. This VICE article points out that "white girls did not start the 'trend' of over-sized hoop earrings and yet they're the ones being praised for donning the 'edgy' style.". It closes with the lines: "It's only a matter of time before latinx style gets stale and hoops are declared over in favor of a new accessory. Except not everyone moves through life with the ease of donning and discarding trends without any thought." If you struggle all your life to embrace your cultural identity, you do not want to see parts of it turned into a disposable mainstream-trend.
Another debate which I have been faintly familiar with, has evolved around the bindi. I found a great poem by an author using the pseudonym forestpenguin which again highlights one of the most problematic aspects about cultural appropriation: Cultural symbols are taken out of their context, ignoring the fact that they have a deeper meaning and significance for people belonging to that culture, oftentimes shaped by experiences of oppression, exclusion, and social stigma. Many white people love Indian food, yoga, bindis, saris, henna, shouting OM SHANTI and NAMASTE while bowing and pressing their palms together in front of their chest, tattooing ॐ on their ankles and wearing printed shirts with hindu deities. But they are largely ignorant of the fact that for Indians around the world, "oppression is far from over, and [they] still exist within marginalised communities." And as much as they love the culture, they mostly do not care whether the items they wear are a cheap knock-off or actually support Indian businesses.
Which leads me to one of the central questions I have: who is it up to do decide what is cultural appropriation and what isn't? Obviously, if you are a white person, your opinion is not really determinative. But the lines are blurred. This article points out that context matters a lot. If you do henna at the wedding of your Indian friend, it's OK and even welcome/expected. If you get it done by a white hippie woman on a music festival, it's problematic. Put up a dream catcher on the walls of your bed room, if you like, but better don't wear a cheap plastic version of one as a fashionable item and post pictures of it on your social media account.
As I mentioned previously, the boundaries are oftentimes blurred and there isn't one single universal conception of cultural appropriation. My usual, probably useless conclusion: It's all context-dependent. Of course the matter is not easy to tackle. But rather than a path that has a clearly marked goal (as in: cultural appropriation ceases to exist), I see it more as part of a larger discourse around social justice, as an ongoing negotiation about boundaries and fluidity of culture. Critics of cultural appropriation, as well as political correctness per se, oftentimes imply But where would we be if we would follow each and every complaint of each and every allegedly oppressed person?!. They paint exaggerated caricatures of a world in which the ways we talk, think, write, dress, eat, live, would be constantly "policed" by the political correct. I can only speak for myself but for me, this is not the point. The point is to become a better, more sensitive and integral person (and society), to be more understanding of people who don't benefit from the system the way we do, to (re-)learn to see culture or religion as something infused with meaning and irrational (be-)longing.
Wheras I would use the whole topic as a further prove of the personal being political, the journalist writing for the FAZ seems to come to a different conclusion. They wrap up with the odd statement that the "ideology" behind cultural appropriation is in fact apolitical because it blames the individual for something that society as a whole is responsible for. So that means it is alright to be racist and offensive as long as systemic racism and oppression exist because you are not personally to blame for it? Eh...? I would say the opposite is true: if we lived in an ideal world where every person was absolutely equal, THEN appropriating items from other, non-white cultures would be way less of an issue and the actions of individuals could be looked at in an apolitical way. In that case, even the terminology and categorization of "white" and "black" would be irrelevant. But the world, as we know, is not ideal, and as long as that is the case, we have to critically reflect our actions, choose our words wisely, listen to people who enjoy less privilege, and not claim our right to hurt other people and the planet we live on in the name of goddamn freedom.
* I chose to use the term "Native American" but there is an ongoing debate about correct terminology (see Wikipedia article)
** The Oxford Dictionairy defines cultural appropriation as "The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society."In
*** In fact, I am so fascinated, repelled, amused, and annoyed by the articles I found from across the political spectrum of media outlets that I am going to write a separate article on the particular German debate on cultural appropriation.
**** I came across an article that described how white anti-racist activists in Germany lectured refugees about which terms they should and shouldn't use to refer to themselves. Wrong. Very wrong.