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Cultural Appropriation Is Erasure

Ah cultural appropriation — always a fun and light-hearted topic that often leaves offended minorities “canceling” a person or a brand on one side of the debate, while squaring up against some baffled (usually white) person/brand that acts as if cultural sensitivity is an idea that sprang up five minutes ago while they were ordering their venti chai latte. It’s a tired conversation in which the simple question could be asked if an individual knew that they did not know enough about the culture to use the garb AND did not ask for insight from people who would most likely be offended by it, why would you do it? 

Showing respect and consideration for others is not a limitation on anyone’s freedom of speech. In fact, when respect is shown to a culture; members of that community will more readily accept and teach the newcomer about traditions, food, and music.

The most problematic aspect of cultural appropriation– despite the blatant disregard for history and oftentimes struggle– is that perpetration happens in spaces where minorities are typically underrepresented. A white woman is more likely to wear cornrows and a fake afro if there are no black people in the vicinity to be offended and angry with her. Teen Vogue’s Jessica Andrews said it best, “It takes a certain amount of privilege to ‘choose’ ethnic garb when you don’t have to grapple with the lived reality of being that ethnicity.” 

During slavery, black women often braided their hair in cornrows to signal that they wanted to escape to other slaves. When black women wear cornrows today, that proud and brave ancestral weight is on our shoulders and scalps reminding us of the strength we possess as police officers murder our family members without consequence, as we are discriminated against at work because of our race, and while high-fashion snobs and other racist individuals label us as “ghetto,” “dirty,” and “uncivilized.” Rarely is that struggle acknowledged when a white woman decides to get cornrows because she thinks they are “cute.”

In 18th-century New Orleans, freed black women were required by law to cover their hair in a head wrap known as a tignon. The tignon was a large swath of fabric wrapped around the head in a similar style as a turban or a West African Gele. These laws were put in place to distinguish black women as lower class and dissuade white men’s interest in them. Instead (as black women are often to do with bad situations) the tignon became a symbol of fashion and beauty despite the governor’s best efforts to keep black women down. Black women rock head wraps today to protect their hair, make a fashion statement, and to call back to those roots much like Beyonce’s did in the opening sequences of Lemonade.

While tignons were required to be worn by law, hijabs are worn by Muslim women as a symbol of religious identity and self-expression. In the United States women have been attacked, berated and followed for wearing hijabs, and the rebellious act of continuing to wear them in a country that punishes anyone who isn’t Christian is a noble feat. A white girl wearing a hijab to Coachella should have to answer for choosing to wear a religious garment to a drug-filled festival where most of the other festival-goers are not bothered, or directly affected by issues like Trump’s Muslim ban or the bombings and shootings that happen at mosques across the country.

Another crowd favorite at festivals is the appropriating of elaborate feathers and headdresses that are linked to Native American ceremonial practices and hold a distinguished meaning. Victoria’s Secret went under fire in 2012 after supermodel Karlie Kloss sauntered down the runway in a “sexy Indian” costume. Why a grown woman decided to parade down a runway wearing that much turquoise when she is clearly white and not from Arizona is beyond me.

American Plains tribes honored male leaders who had earned a place of respect among the community usually through war or political and diplomatic gain through the very war bonnets and headdresses drunk people try to wear to Coachella. Headdresses are now worn ceremoniously and are still awarded to Native Americans who have earned the highest respect of their tribe. All Victoria’s Secret has accomplished is a repeated pattern of cultural disrespect. 

Much like the Native Americans of the mainland Americas, the original inhabitants of Hawaii have rich cultural significance tied to garments like grass skirts and leis. Hawaii has beautiful cultural practices that many tourists and business people like to exploit. There is a rich ancestral history ripe with gods and goddesses and kings and queens, white missionaries spreading Christianity, a return to ancestral practices after a ban on public hula by Queen Kaʻahumanu at the urging of aforementioned missionaries, and to top it all off– an overthrow in 1893 by the U.S. government. That lineage reverberates in the traditional Native Hawaiian clothing worn and through the practice of hula despite the commercialization of such things by tourism. So no, you should not wear a grass skirt to your company’s summer luau. 

It is isn’t common American practice to wear a wedding dress out clubbing or funeral blacks to a barbecue. It is not okay to take another culture’s significant garb to spice up an outfit. Sadly, there are many other cultures who have experienced appropriation by the hands of Americans that I did not explain in detail: the Mexican sombrero and poncho, bindis and saris of India and one of the most commonly appropriated items, the kimono.

Communities become offended because mainstream brands, people and media take an item of significant historical meaning, throw it on someone who does not come from that community without context or callback, and names it the next new thing while completely erasing the struggle and history that the members of that community contend with every day. Cultural appropriation is erasure and that is why it is important to differentiate between appropriation and appreciation. Cultural appreciation is when members of two different communities can come together to learn about each other, share meaning, and exchange ideas and values while sharing food, music, and clothing. Appreciation breeds growth, diversity, gratitude and new understandings of the world around us. Be an appreciator, not an appropriator.

By Mikala Everett
Cover Photo by Luigi Murenu, Iango Henzi for Vogue Japan October 2018 issue