Cultural Appropriation 101

Put that back where it came from, or so help me...

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Cultural Appropriation 101

Hannah Klemme, Entertainment Editor

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“Me? Racist?! Of course not!!” said the white girl attending Coachella with a bindi thoughtlessly slapped on her forehead.

I hate to break the bad news, but wearing another culture’s meaningful traditions as a trend is the epitome of ignorance. It seems as if we live in a world where “everything is offensive,” where a white person wearing dreads claims to be an insult to black culture, and a “festive” Halloween costume affirms a racial stereotype. There may be no hateful intent behind the actions, but there is rightful reasoning as to why people are offended by them. Some people might ask, “What’s the big deal?” or, “Why so sensitive?” But as turns out, cultural appropriation is a big deal and it needs to be talked about.


Let’s get one thing straight: cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation are two polar opposite things. No, wearing a Native American headdress in a super #hipster Tumblr post is not cultural appreciation. Culture is not a fashion accessory, but it sure is treated like one. Using a distinct race or religion’s regalia as a fashion statement isn’t trendy. But I get it; it’s hard to understand this concept when some our most popular trendsetters are participating in such ignorance.


My deepest condolences go out to a few of my favorite fashion icons and music makers. I’m not sure if they quite understand the unfavorable effect some of their wardrobe choices have on their overall reputation. This year’s music festival season sent me into a routine of face palms as my Instagram feed overflowed with photos of the Jenner sisters mindlessly adorning their foreheads with bindis. I also hate to bag on my girl, Vanessa Hudgens, but the Queen of Coachella’s daily facial decor also made me cringe.

Maybe it’s a hard concept to grasp that if you are of a certain color you “can’t” wear your hair in a certain style or embellish your body in a certain way. It’s not that people want to blockade other’s self expression, it’s about taking a second look at what you’re doing and looking at the context behind it. It’s completely obscure that Miley Cyrus can wear dreads to the VMA’s to be “edgy,” but when Zendaya turns up to the Oscars in locks she receives racist backlash. It might take a history lesson or two to become educated on why these things are offensive, but being knowledgable about targeted cultures is the biggest piece to being culturally appropriate.


Perpetual stereotypes are also revamped by cultural appropriation. Take Katy Perry for instance. Back in 2013 she gave a questionably televised performance during the American Music Awards. Attempting to pull off a true geisha theme, Perry stepped out on stage in a full blast kimono/kabuki-faced combo. Prancing alongside her were several stereotypically dressed Japanese women, which did not go over well with her critics. Another example is the retired Disney star, Selena Gomez, and her MTV Movie Awards performance of “Come and Get it.” Her super Indian aesthetic was shining through the bindi and fashionable Indian garbs she was seductively dancing in. Call me crazy, but I was personally unconvinced that the song had anything to do with the Hindu religion.


On another note, it’s unfair that people who call others out on such appropriation are labeled as oversensitive. We witnessed Hunger Games star, Amanda Stenberg, call out Kylie Jenner for her braids saying, “Don’t cash crop on my cornrows.” And boy, did she get some nasty feedback for that. Yes, it’s just hair. But when millions of people look at it that way, it trivializes the importance of the people that identify with that hairstyle, or that hijab, or that bindi. It takes away from the credit of the culture being borrowed from and blurs the line between tradition and fad.


So why can’t we just be equal and share our cultures? There’s a catch. Until we can mend the unbalance between exchange and appropriation, these trends will remain.
One of the hardest parts about all of this is drawing a line between mockery and celebration. It’s not about dividing the world in segments and putting restrictions on what people can and can’t do. You also have to take into account the disadvantages people face due to their culture. In this case, ignorance is not bliss. It’s almost easiest to keep your hands to yourself when it comes to exchanging cultures. This doesn’t mean we should stop learning about and celebrating our diversified atmosphere. It simply revisits the fact that someone’s traditions may be limiting their opportunities while others are flourishing from stolen features.

On another side of the argument lies the group that wonders why marginalized people are never called out for being thieves of culture. As harsh as it sounds, I have the lowest amount of sympathy for privileged people that feel oppressed because they’re wardrobe options are “limited” due to their potential offensiveness. It’s a hard issue to walk around. Sadly, there’s not a cultural checkout line to buy or gain permission to attire that doesn’t belong to our heritage. It costs nothing to steal culture, but the guilt that comes with constraining an entire race or religion for your own personal benefit is the ultimate price paid.

With Halloween being just around the corner, I hope everyone is capable of being sensible with what they wear. Before picking up that faux Mexican poncho and sombrero off the shelf, think about how that costume could be offensive to the culture it’s derived from. If you feel internally conflicted wearing the thing, it’s probably in your best interest to ditch it and find something else. Whether you aim to be a comedic hit or the best-dressed party-goer, the reward isn’t worth the cost of glorifying the theft of a beloved heritage.