Culture Appropriation or Fashion Trend?

You may have heard the term “cultural appropriation” in the media a lot lately, but you may not know what it is. You may be asking, “But in today’s world, isn’t cultural exchange inevitable and okay?” The true meaning is misunderstood by some and misused by others, but one way to look at it is that cultural appropriation is taking something sacred or important to a culture and turning it into a fashion statement, with disregard for the people of that culture.

The issue is especially pertinent as we get closer to Halloween, with “sexy Indian princess” and geisha costumes and blackface looming on the horizon, making light of stigmas people of those cultures have to live with every day of the year, but it’s a problem every other day of the year.

What should be the most obvious example, but sadly aren’t, are the Native American-inspired headdresses made popular at music festivals. What some see as a festive accessory actually has deep significance to many Native American tribes and is a symbol of honor. So no, you’re not “honoring” them by wearing a headdress any more than the name of the Washington Redskins (a major slur against Native Americans) is “honoring” them; you’re making a mockery of cultures that survived a genocide.

In the global society we live in, sometimes it’s difficult to see where the line between cultural appropriation and merely being influenced by another culture is. Are tribal prints, bindis, or dreadlocks cultural appropriation or fashion statements? Ask yourself:

1.     What is the significance of this fashion statement? Is it part of a sacred tradition, or is it just the clothes people wear in a certain country or community or the way they do their hair? If you don’t know, Google it.

2.     Are you trying to make yourself seem like something you’re not?

3.     Are you ignoring the histories these cultures have and continue to face? Do you stand up for the people whose culture inspires you, or do you treat their cultures like fashion accessories?

4.     If you ran into a member of the culture where your fashion statement originated, would you feel the need to justify yourself to them?

When in doubt, ask someone of that culture. In some cases, you may get conflicting answers; some Indian people call white people wearing bindis cultural appropriation, while others say even girls in India wear them as fashion accessories. When still in doubt, don’t wear it. Above all, treat that statement and the culture it comes from with respect.