Preface I: Why are we having this conversation? Despite this being a very difficult and sensitive conversation to have, I think it’s necessary. My blog is, by its nature, a part of the fashion industry—a.k.a. one of the largest players in producing inappropriate cultural appropriation—therefore, it must be identified and called out. Silence is complacence. Moreover, this topic has been requested by many of my readers for a long time, so it’s obviously a conversation that’s needed in spaces like these.
Preface II: Defining and drawing lines is not something that I can do—both because I am not a spokesperson for any cultural, ethnic, or religious group (especially ones that I am not a part of, obviously) and also because I simply don’t have all the answers. Or even some of them. I think cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation are very difficult concepts to grapple with, and this should be an ongoing conversation.
Alright. Let’s do this.
What is Cultural Appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is, in its simplest form, the act of an individual from a particular (usually privileged or dominant) culture adopting cultural and/or religious elements of a marginalized culture, insensibly.
This is most clearly articulated when a dominant or oppressive group takes from a culture that it is oppressing (for example, when white people in the USA wear a whitewashed version of traditional Native American headdresses as sexy costumes), but more complicated and difficult to identify when one marginalized group takes from another marginalized group (for example, Beyoncé appropriating Indian culture in Coldplay’s recent music video for their song “Hymn For The Weekend”).
Both are definitely forms of cultural appropriation, but for different reasons, and in different ways. According to Apihtawikosisan, a Native American blogger, many men in the Native and indigenous tribes of North America wore headdresses if they achieved a particular honor; non-Native people wearing one is an act of cultural appropriation because it totally ignores this significance. Another layer of cultural appropriation is added to this when white Americans wear Native or Indigenous cultural objects: the United States was built on the genocide of Native and Indigenous Americans, so the act of white Americans—whose ancestors are responsible for the annihilation of Native and Indigenous American peoples and cultures and now enjoy the benefits of the society they created—wearing Native and Indigenous American cultural objects is wrong and culturally appropriative.
A major key here is that cultural appropriation plays on historic themes of oppression and domination and does not respect the significance or value of the cultural/religious object in question.
Ready for another example? Remember that time Rihanna went to Dubai and posed in front of a mosque? Super rad and cool, right?
Mmm, how about not.
We’re going to file this one in the Cultural Appropriation folder right next to the file on Dolce & Gabbana’s latest “collection for Muslims.” Why? Both of these do not constitute appreciation—they clearly don’t even know enough about Islam to be able to appreciate it. Rihanna hypersexualized a garment made for modesty and disregarded the religiosity of a particular space. Dolce & Gabbana threw around expensive, glamorous fabrics to act as headcoverings made to reject excess superficiality. Both sound a bit appropriative, culturally and religiously, if you ask me, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman. (But again, I don’t speak for all Muslims because we’re not a monolithic, homogeneous entity! Ahem, Western media, USA Republican candidates and Hillary Clinton, et al.
Not to mention that another way to identify cultural appropriation is when a cultural/religious object suddenly becomes “cool” when someone from another culture adopts it.
Many of the same people who were commenting “Oh my god! So cute!” under Rihanna’s photos covering her hair and skin might also be calling Muslims terrorists and asking Muslim women if they are oppressed. (P.S. We’re not).
Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry wearing cornrows is another example of cultural appropriation: something that is supposedly “cute” or “edgy” when white people do it, but looked down upon when Black people introduced it and continue to pull it off beautifully.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t be wearing anything that belongs to a culture that is not yours—people around the world are beautiful and are wearing and practicing wonderful things that everyone can partake in, but it is so important to be doing so with an acute understanding of the relationship between your culture and the one you are trying not to appropriate, the significance of the cultural/religious object or practice, and constantly challenging yourself and questioning your intentions, purposes, and goals.
• The act of a dominant or privileged group adopting cultural elements of another (most likely marginalized or oppressed) culture in an insensible manner.
• Plays on historic themes of oppression, domination, and privilege.
• Ignores the value, significance, or meaning of the object/practice.
• Does not give credit to the original culture/religion/ethnicity/etc.
• Looked down upon/mocked when practiced/worn by the original marginalized culture but becomes “cool,” “trendy,” or “edgy” when done by the oppressors/appropriators.
• Understanding the significance of a particular practice/object/tradition and not undermining or destroying its significance or value.
• Understanding histories of oppression and marginalization surrounding the particular object/practice/tradition and gauging the appropriateness of your actions in relation to this.
• Being invited by an individual of that particular culture to participate in and wear their culture’s traditions/clothing for a specific event or occasion (weddings, religious rituals, etc.).
• But word of caution here: getting a “go” pass from one of your friends doesn’t mean that other people from their culture won’t be offended. Just like you can’t use your token Black friend as an excuse to be racist, you can’t use the invitation of one Muslim to wear a headscarf for a day as an excuse to expect that the rest of us are all going to be jumping up and down and applaud you for your bravery.
• Ask yourself: Why am I doing this? What are my goals in doing this? Can I achieve my goal without doing this? Why is this necessary? Is this even necessary?
This column was originally published on JooJoo Azad, an activist fashion blog run by Hoda Katebi on March 30, 2016.
Hoda is a Muslim-Iranian writer, photographer, and activist based in Chicago. She is a guest columnist this month, in place of AK Agunbiade.
Joojoo Azad, Farsi for “Free Bird,” is an anti-capitalist, intersectional-feminist, inclusive, body-positive, fashion blog.