CULTURAL APPROPRIATION OR APPRECIATION
Kim Kardashian wears braids – yet again and boom, off goes the internet in frenzy. Yet there is absolutely nothing new about this whole storm in a teacup. Brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Channel, Victoria’s secret and celebrities like Katy Perry, Scarlet Johansson and of course the Kardashian clan among several others, have faced the backlash over cultural appropriation. Yet there are others who stand for the cultural appreciation and acknowledge its importance. So, once again the advocates of cultural appropriation or appreciation are up against one another. I was particularly interested in this topic and not only read a lot of articles about it and people’s comments but also talked to some folks about their opinion on the issue. I feel that it all boils down to a certain attitude where we just look at an issue from one dimension and absolutely refuse to even consider the other side of an argument. Seemingly stuck in a hole refusing to peep outside. So, what is it after all? Cultural appropriation or appreciation?
The truth is that a lot of times the whole media frenzy seems to be over NOTHING. If someone is stealing an idea that is of religious or cultural significance to a group of people and portrays it inappropriately then, yes, it is inappropriate. But does that mean that the cultural boundaries should be made so significant that the sky-rise walls are built between cultures and anyone crossing them has to be crucified? I think that is just equally inappropriate and inhibits healthy cultural appreciation.
As the technological advancements are turning us also into a truly global village, the physical distances do not really matter that much anymore. The extensive international and intercontinental migrations mean that the cultural mix and mashup is inevitable. Think of kids growing up with those from various backgrounds. They often distantly relate to the cultures their parents come from and by the next generation, those vague commonalities are often lost too. It’s only natural to be attracted to what your friends are wearing or how they style their hair. When you are close to various cultures, you learn about them and appreciate and admire their aspects more.
Let’s take a white woman wearing braids for example. Cultural appropriation is not right when features from a minority group are misinterpreted or used to insult that group but that does not mean bashing every white girl who wants to braid her hair. Maybe she is honoring a black friend, maybe she just likes the hairstyle or maybe like Kim, she is married to a black guy and wants to have the same hairstyle as her little daughter. Now how does that insults the black culture and how is it inappropriate? Branding what is clearly cultural appreciation as cultural appropriation is ignorance quoted in arrogance.
As far as the point of dominant and subdued culture is concerned. We do not live in the old times anymore. We hated the concept of segregation in the past so now why create a new sort of segregation again. Why let the old scars dictate the direction of the future? Why not promote inclusion instead of separation? Why not allow others to appreciate other cultures?
Another aspect worth keeping in mind is that history did not start just a few hundred years ago. A lot of traditions popular over a certain group of people have roots far back in the history and while certain practices might have become popular in a certain culture at a particular time in history, they might not just be limited to that group only and hence they may not claim ownership to that practice. So, the people blaming others of ignorance are actually a lot of the times ignorant themselves. Braids are a perfect example of this phenomenon. Braids or dreadlocks are traditionally linked to African descendants and a lot of people feel that in order to qualify to be allowed to have them, you need to be of an African origin. What a lot of people seem to be unaware of, is the fact that braids and dreadlocks have a much diverse origin and much deeper history.
The earliest written evidence of dreadlocks points us to modern day India where the Hindu God Shiva wore the style and inspired his followers to do the same. Even today Hindu Sadhus in India wear dreadlocks. Ancient Egyptian mummies were found with dreadlocks still intact proving that dreadlocks were popular in Egyptian times. Greek statues have been found with dreadlocks. Sumerians, one of the oldest known civilizations from the areas known as Iran and Iraq also had braids. According to the Old Testament, Sampson had long dreadlocks that gave him immense powers. Muslim Darweshes also used to keep dreadlocks. Pre-Columbus Aztecs wore them. Areas of modern-day Poland and Germany wore braids for over a millennia and slightly more known European braids are from Vikings hailing originally from modern-day Nordic countries. In the ancient Roman empire, they used to select 6 vestal virgins, women sworn to virginity and purity who would wear braids as symbols of their chastity. Now, do you still believe that only a black person is entitled to braids? It’s ok to have a personal opinion about an issue, but it’s best to do some research before jumping into conclusions raving about them and most importantly bashing others for cultural appropriation.
I remember reading the views of Japanese audience when Scarlett Johansson’s casting in the movie “Ghost in a Shell” was criticized. Most of them loved the movie and had no problem with the choice of the actress. You might disagree with the comments made by one of them but we are all entitled to our opinions after all. “Culture is meant to be stolen. If it’s not worth stealing then it isn’t culture”. “If people keep claiming ‘cultural appropriation’ then people will not touch our culture. Then people will not understand our culture and it will be easier to become our enemy. Westerners care too much about silly things.”
Perhaps part of it also comes from the fact that a lot of people do not travel that much or when they do travel, it’s only for a short time and they do not get the chance to mix with other cultures. While our stay in Bali, we had a chance to be part of a religious ceremony. We had to wear the traditional clothes for that, and we are not even Hindus. Now when you look at the image of our Editor with long blond hair wearing Hindu clothes praying in a temple, you might want to blame him for cultural appropriation but the locals did not get offended. Instead, they loved it and appreciated it. They talked about the significance of their ceremonies and the clothes and knew that we respect and admire their culture.
Particularly talking about fashion, we take inspiration from our environment. We borrow ideas from our surroundings. If a designer goes to China or India and incorporates certain elements of their culture into his or her creation, I do not think they need a screening process to go through for the presentation of their ideas. They do not need to involve a local as part of the process of creation. They have done that as part of their research now they should be free to express their creativity as long as they are not disrespectful to that group. They do not need to have those clothes on the models from the respective culture or ethnicity. They can make that decision based on their own target audience which might in many cases not even be the same ethnicity. We have all seen Asian men wearing Sikh Turbans. Putting them on white models’ heads made them stand out while introducing a local item as a fashion accessory which many Sikhs might love to buy too. Things like turban just show a slight snippet of the culture and aim to provoke thoughts so others can research about it. Fashion is art and it is supposed to inspire and not necessarily tell you the whole story. Besides, I never heard a Sikh person complain about their turbans being on the Gucci’s catwalk and I did not hear a Japanese person complain about their culture being used in the West. A lot of uproars comes from people who are trying to speak for others.
If people will open their minds before opening their mouths probably they will be far less offended by silly meaningless things. If you really have to fight about something then fight for something more meaningful like the rights of underprivileged and on the margin communities rather than on petty things like someone’s choice of hairstyle.
Western culture as we know it now in itself is melting pot of cultures from around the world including African, Asian and many others. This multiculturalism is only a positive thing as it encourages harmony, unity and appreciates and celebrates the beauty in different cultures. So, let’s open our hearts and minds, break down the barriers and walls segregating us and join the cultural revolution which is inevitable whether you like it or not. Let cultural appreciation thrive and not thrash those who champion it. It’s about time the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation is understood with open mind and heart.