Tackling the Topic of Cultural Appropriation

Mahnoor Imran, YGI Staff Writer

In America, much of our art, cuisine, fashion trends, and traditions derive from the miscellany of cultures that make up our nation’s melting pot. Race and ethnicity plays a crucial role in how American citizens define themselves and their legacy. But more than often, cultures become disdainfully intertwined and the exploitation of minority groups through what is called “culture appropriation” becomes a serious problem as it robs minority groups of their deserved credit.

Susan Scafidi, law professor and author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law clearly defined culture appropriation as:

“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts
from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”

Common targets of this controversial issue include African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and indigenous people. To further explicate, examples of this could include someone using the Native American’s headdress as an accessory piece, sports teams using Native American tribal names or images as mascots, mimicking iconography from another culture’s history such as tattoos of Polynesian tribal iconography, wearing the Japanese Kimono without regard to cultural significance, and non-Muslim women wearing the hijab to make a fashion statement.

In the eyes of the unaffected, these may appear to be trivial topics but in a society where issues like systemic racism and prejudicial job discrimination occur, these matters need to be addressed and tackled.

Celebrities such as Madonna, Miley Cyrus, Julianne Hough, Katy Perry, and Kylie Jenner, have been publically criticized for different forms of appropriation. Madonna was the key figure in popularizing the form of personal expression known as voguing, which began in black and Latino sectors of the gay community. In addition, this pop icon has also used Latin America as a backdrop in a music video and appeared in attire with Asian roots without regard for cultural respect.

Miley Cyrus has been accused of explicitly mimicking Black crunk music and popularizing “twerking”, a dance originating from roots in the African-American community. In addition to this, at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2013, her performance was labeled as a garish imitation of black music, in which she reduced black dancers to background fodder, portraying the image of black women as being exaggerated sex objects.

In the Halloween of 2013, Julianne Hough decided to go for a bold Halloween endeavor by dressing up as the Orange Is the New Black character Crazy Eyes, completing the look with orange prison attire, a knotted hairdo, and…Blackface. Blackface is a form of social parody that holds a history of the dehumanization of black people, illustrating them as lazy, uneducated, and inferior. Her darkened skin provoked a great amount of criticism, raising raises a serious questions about why stereotypes are so prevalent within society.

When Kylie Jenner wore cornrows in her hair, this led to a conversation on stealing versus sharing black culture. Jenner was called out by Amandla Stenberg for wearing the hairstyle like it was her own but not using her platform to raise awareness about black people’s issues. It’s not just about whether or not non-blacks can wear braids, Stenberg’s message is about acknowledging the existence of the people behind the culture.

Many attempt to call out hypocrisy in which blacks’ hairstyles are labeled ghetto, trashy, unpolished, wild, dirty and so on but if a white person adopts them, it becomes an edgy and acclaimed fashion trend. These double standards are commonly known to minorities since they grow up bullied for embracing their culture but later watch other people being praised for stealing their culture. While it’s all a matter of perspective, misrepresentations of religion and culture by artists and celebrities leads to a lot of damaging repercussions for these people. The sad fact is that people of color continue to adopt Eurocentric beauty standards in order to adapt to and thrive in this society, abandoning their ethnic roots out of fear.

There is a fine line between the concepts of culture appreciation and culture
appropriation. The way culture is infused into the media sparks many feuds and debates on how far these barriers should stretch. Raging accusations of racism instigate internet outrage on platforms of social media, the rhetoric of these shrill allegations depicting many social justice advocates’ umbrage towards culture appropriation. But what exactly is the difference between appreciating and appropriating a culture? It’s quite simple. Appreciation without recognition is appropriation but the intention of appreciating the beauty along with understanding the background of the cultural aspect is what separates it.

Appreciation: Angelina Jolie on her visit to Pakistan, respecting the Islamic culture and
more conservative environment. Appropriation: Two white girls with no religious ties to Islam, wearing the headscarf for their own fashion.

While in the 21st century, globalization and cultural exposure in the media is important, we must respect other heritages. The concept of cultural appropriation is not a matter of placing senseless restrictions on what marginalized groups can or cannot do; it is still possible to maintain creative artistry and cultural sensitivity. The debate is about more than maintaining an aesthetic, it’s about integrity.

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