Cultural Appropriation

Hollywood actress Michelle Williams in "redface" in AnOther Magazine

Hollywood actress Michelle Williams in “redface” in AnOther Magazine

If you follow media trends, you may have noticed that people seem to be talking about cultural appropriation more and more these days. It is a highly charged topic with disparate views. Cultural appropriation is rampant in mainstream media; remember that mainstream media is reflective of the prevailing currents. In Homegrown, Amalia Mesa-Baines wrote, “What you have now then is the marketing of racialized identities as tools for consumption. And certain racialized bodies and images are associated with hipness, coolness, edginess…

So what is Cultural Appropriation? Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as the acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It involves removing elements from their cultural context, thereby diverging from their meaning and reducing their significance.

Majority of the people who are guilty of appropriation do not do it with malice intended. However, what they don’t seem to understand is the historical significance of cultural identity and appropriation; cultural appropriation is a process of displacing people and history.

The dehumanization of black people during the slavery era included stripping away all elements of their African identity (among other things that I won’t get into). In post-slavery era, black people were subjected to segregation, racism and many other forms of systemic oppression. Black culture is rooted in all these historical experiences. One aspect of black culture that we are constantly seeing a lot these days is “ratchet culture” (See Miley Cyrus) – cultural appropriation combined with the commodification and exploitation of black female bodies resulted in what we now call “ratchet culture”. Read more on: Feministing blog.

Indigenous culture involves rituals, beliefs and customs that have been part of Native identity long before their land was stolen and occupied. Enter colonialism: Traditional values were changed and Indigenous people were shamed for being “savages”; ceremonies were banned and cultural knowledge and beliefs were rendered inferior. Indigenous people are often stereotyped in mainstream culture – most recently in the Disney Film, The Lone Ranger. For more reading on Indigenous cultural appropriation (from a Native American blogger), see Native Appropriations.

No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani wearing a bindi

No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani wearing a bindi

A bindi is not a fashion accessory! Yes, it is considered an adornment, but it also has a key religious significance in Hinduism. I wonder if Selena Gomez realizes (or even cares about) this when she wears one.

When it’s not your culture that’s being ridiculed or reduced to a corporate commodity, it is hard to empathize with or understand this point of view. Cultural appropriation is an issue of power distribution in a society where one culture dominates all other cultures; in case you didn’t know already, we live in a white supremacist society where every other culture and identity is othered and white is privileged. You may not be able to fully empathize but it is in moments like these when you check your privilege. Checking your privilege is not about feeling shame or guilt or getting rid of it, it’s about being conscious of what your privilege means for you and for those around you. It is about realizing the significance of the choices you make while in a position of privilege.

My turban is not a fashion trend. Source: http://johannablakley.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/cultural-appropriation-in-fashion/

My turban is not a fashion trend

Once we begin to fully explore and discuss the historical origins and significance of different cultures, then appropriation will not be taken so lightly.

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