What Happens When We ‘Borrow’ Another Culture Without Really Understanding It

Posted by Aishwarya Narayan in Culture-Vulture, Society
September 11, 2017

Be it the rebranding of South Asian bindis as ‘face gems’ or Katy Perry performing at the 2013 American Music Awards dressed as a geisha, cultural appropriation seems to be the latest fad, leaving a bitter taste in its wake. Cultural appropriation is the use of elements of one culture by another, without the latter’s permission. Its inherent malevolence toward minority communities (the cultures of whom are the sources of most ‘trends’) lies in the pronounced imbalance of power between the people of colour who belong to these communities and the majority. The typical victims of cultural appropriation are the Native American, Asian American, Indian American and African American communities.

All these communities have faced, and continue to face considerable antagonism for embracing various aspects of their own cultures ― the same aspects that are appropriated by the majority. The perpetrators of appropriation seem to be largely Caucasian. This seems to be a continuation of the trend that Western values and culture is ideal, while everything else could be imagined as the ‘Other.’

But is cultural appropriation as harmful as online social justice warriors claim it to be? Or is the hatred simply just an intolerant backlash to the natural intermingling of cultures?

The answer is not complicated. To be a socially conscious society, a collective effort is required to realise the difference between cultural ‘exchange,’ which results in mutual benefit and learning, and the more damaging ‘appropriation’ which perpetuates harmful stereotypes about minority communities.

Cultural appropriation in itself is a form of colonialism. It is a clear message to the people of colour, that their cultures amount to nothing more than homogenised caricatures and traits that are two dimensional and lack further meaning. It reinforces the power asymmetries of the colonial era when the white man took what he felt that he could own.

Innocuous cultural borrowing can become appropriation when it reinforces the historically exploitative relationships of minority communities. When power brands like Victoria’s Secret and Elle have models dressed in Native American headdresses, African American cornrows, or Japanese kimonos  ― these styles no doubt gain validation. Essentially, the same styles which some communities were ridiculed for embracing and wearing, gain validation in the public sphere because they were ‘reinvented’ by a white person.

In the African American community, a woman’s natural hairstyle is an extremely personal, and sometimes, political choice. Black women who choose to wear their hair in afros, dreadlocks or cornrows (the hairstyles best suited for African-American hair) have been ridiculed and called ‘ghetto’ or unprofessional. They have received unending flak for their dressing choices and their bodies. When Kylie Jenner supposedly reinvented the same trends, millions of White American women began to follow. Except now, it was thought to be typically Kylie Jenner. The hypocrisy in such situations cannot be ignored. It would be a completely different situation if Kylie Jenner, or any other perpetrator of appropriation, were to use their position of influence and privilege to inform the public about the histories of other communities, or use their platform to bring more African American artists into the limelight.

A dominant culture is given the freedom to ‘experiment’, ‘borrow’ and ‘try on’ aspects integral to another culture but fails to change their ignorance towards the same.

Katy Perry in a kimono with her face heavily powdered at the 2013 AMAs, perpetuated a harmful stereotype about ‘submissive, subservient, dainty and shy’ Asian women. She and her dancers (note, not a single Asian woman was present) had put their palms together, shuffling their feet, bowing, and scurrying across the stage, hiding behind umbrellas and fans. This kind of stereotypical visualisation plays right into the fetishisation of Asian women ― not something Perry will have to deal with once the costume comes off. The damage, however, is done.

In any case, the debate on cultural appropriation is about more than just intangible hypocrisy. In many instances, there exists a monetary aspect as well, where a dominant culture has succeeded in making considerable fortunes from their appropriations. The rock’n’roll culture as it is known today, rarely has an African American name to it even though the roots of this music are largely attributed to their community. Sam Phillips, the man who discovered Elvis Presley, was known to have said, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars!” Today, rock’n’roll is known as a largely white genre.

The Washington Redskins, a team in the popular National Football League (NFL), are named after a slur used to denote the Native American population. The word redskin has its origins to when the Native population were being hunted down and exterminated. Bounty hunters would have to bring back a scalp or their skin. The mascot of the Washington Redskins is nothing but the sketch of a Native American chieftain in a traditional headdress. While reducing an entire community into mascots and logos, the team has simultaneously made millions of dollars because of this marketing.

In these two instances, a majority culture has made a profit by adopting other cultures, while systemic racism would pose considerable barriers for a person of colour to do the same, as was evident in the Rock’n’Roll example.

Many believe that cultural appropriation is normal, and not at all harmful, and that the intermingling of cultures show appreciation and increased representation. They justify that this amounts to empowerment. It’s rather the exact opposite. There is no empowerment in not being given a voice in how one’s own community and culture are represented. It would be to deny minority communities an important voice, a voice they deserve, to stand up for themselves.

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