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Cultural Appropriation and its Double Standards

Picture this: a 17-year-old white male is walking home from the store. He’s doing nothing unusual. He just wanted to get his favorite candy and drink, while wearing his favorite hoodie to keep him warm.

While he’s walking, there’s a man following his every move. Before he makes it home, he is shot. Imagine the parent sitting at home waiting for their son to return, only to find he’s become another body on the street.  

Think about how his parents may have felt, searching for their child, only to find out he’s been shot and killed. How would you feel?

If this scenario hit home, imagine the how people felt in 2012 when an innocent young black man named Trayvon Martin was killed for wearing a hoodie with Skittles and an Arizona tea in his pocket.

Do you think this scenario would have really happened if Martin was white?

According to Google, cultural appropriation, also framed as cultural misappropriation, is a concept dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange due to the presence of a colonial element and imbalance of power.

A professor at Parsons School of Design, Kimberly Jenkins, said cultural appropriation is, “The borrowing usually of an outside culture, sometimes the property of an inside culture. It’s the borrowing of certain aspects of the insider culture by an outside culture be it clothing, food or music.”

She said cultural appropriation depends on intent. It depends on if people are trying to take something and make it their own or show appreciation for the culture. There’s a thin line, but there’s also a way to steer away from cultural appropriation.

Jenkins said if a person applies the “three S’s” they shouldn’t have a problem when it comes to people being offended by what they are wearing or participating in.

“For anyone participating in those things of cultural appreciation, it’s just knowing what you’re wearing and applying the three S’s–significance is the first s, the second s is source and the third is similarity,” said Jenkins.  “So with the first s it’s about, do you know the significance of this? Is it sacred? Which could also be an alternative s. Then the second s, the source, do you know where this comes from? What culture this comes from? What country this comes from? Or what face this comes from? And the third s is similarity, and this is mainly for fashion designers in how similar is the piece to the original? And so are you mocking it? Are you copying it? Are you defaming it in any sort of way? So that’s been really handy to kind of keep in your back pocket when trying to discern between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.”

She also said that unequal power relations in fashion is at the heart of the matter. When it comes to fashion designers copying a certain culture or style from other individuals or groups, she said one question or complicated issue is who owns culture? So it gets complicated on what can actually be trademarked or claimed to when it comes to the culture of a certain group of people.

Many people don’t understand their privilege and so when a person is in a position of power, or a part of an ethnicity considered the majority, it doesn’t affect them. They are usually the ones who do the appropriating. No one really questions a person of power and when they do or criticize that person, they’re given a slap on the wrist instead of some type lesson or lecture on what the real issue is.

There’s a double standard involved in the subject of cultural appropriation. Young black women are being sent home from school or work because they are wearing box braids which for them are a protective hairstyle.

Designers such as Marc Jacobs have made the comments such as, “funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair.”  As they said in the NYFW Parsons panel, this is sort of whining because you don’t have the privilege to take from a people without asking.

Jenkins said whoever is in power culturally, socially, politically, economically, they have more flexibility. They can get away with more borrowing from another culture which is usually considered the inside culture or the minoritized group of people.

“When you have minoritzed groups of people maybe borrowing from a culture of power in order to blend for the sake of survival, there’s this kind of lazy argument or response of, ‘well she’s wearing a weave,’ or ‘she’s straitening her hair, she’s borrowing from us.’ When it’s more complicated than that, it’s about survival strategy and the labor involved in that, and just an effort to blend which has nothing to do with cultural appropriation,” said Jenkins.

The double standards in regards to cultural appropriation have more to do with stereotyping certain groups of people. When it comes to Trayvon Martin, a sweatshirt is just a sweatshirt until a black face is under the hoodie.

Jenkins said, “A garment is just a garment when you see it without the body. The body, as we talk about in fashion studies is what signifies what we make of the garment, or how it’s perceived through how it’s worn and who wears it.”

There’s nothing light about cultural appropriation or when a person getting chastised for something of your culture just for women or men of a different race to be praised for it.

It is not a situation to make light of nor should the offended person be considered sensitive when someone trademarks or glorifies something their ancestors helped create or fought for.

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