Cultural Appropriation: an exploration of what it is and how it works.

When I was 8 years old, I moved to a new school and made one friend. She and I were friends because we were both outcasts; I was bullied for being the new kid who cried a lot, and she was bullied because she wore a bindi to school. When I moved to Kingston, people called my food gross, while simultaneously saying they loved samosas. When it comes to my culture, I’m never sure if I can embrace it without facing criticism from others, even if they do so without issue. So what is cultural appropriation? Does is mean someone can’t eat samosas if they’re not from South Asia? Does it mean that if you wear a bindi to a rave, you’re racist? Not necessarily, no. êkosi wrote a pretty good article about cultural appropriation, and argued that if it’s a restricted symbol, you probably shouldn’t be using it because you think it looks quirky or cool. Unrestricted symbols, like food and flags however? She says go for it! However, I argue that the line goes a little further than that; in my opinion, if you don’t like seeing someone from the culture wear a headdress or a bindi, or but you think it’s edgy and cute when you do, you’re definitely appropriating the culture. It’s a matter of respect! It’s not fair that I’m a “fob” (which stands for “fresh off the boat”, an ignorant term for someone who is newly immigrated) when I eat rice and curry. It’s not fair that my friend, (who was born and raised in Canada, but that’s beside the point) was told to go back to where she came from because her parents wanted her to connect with her roots and where a bindi everyday. It’s not fair that people of colour have to be aware of the stigma that sometimes comes attached with participating in their own culture, when other people don’t have to worry about that at all. There is usually a positionality attached to someone who has appropriated something from another culture; it often comes from a place of colonialism. As such, many people argue that the power structure that places white people on top makes it so that white people can’t do anything associated with another culture, because it will automatically be called cultural appropriation. I personally don’t think that’s the right way to approach it. A good example of how one person can partake in another culture without disrespecting or appropriating it is the recent Queen’s Indian Student Association Formal, where everyone on campus was invited to celebrate Indian culture and cuisine. All of my friends wore saris, whether they were white, Indian, or whatever they identified as. They wore them in celebration of the culture, with respect for the culture. And at the end of the night, they looked beautiful, and we all had a great time. Others argue that it is only cultural appropriation if it is a symbol being disrespected, so other people wearing bindis isn’t cultural appropriation because the religious and cultural importance of the bindi has been lost over the past few decades. Again, I’m not sure that this is the right way to approach it. It’s true that I don’t quite understand the significance of the bindi, but it is still a part of my culture. No traditional South Asian outfit is complete without a bindi, and I remember my mother telling me it was disrespectful to the gods if I wasn’t wearing a bindi when we went to the temple, even if I still don’t understand why. Even if the “official” symbolism behind the bindi has been lost to me, there is a cultural significance attached to it anyway, so it bothers me to see someone outside of the culture wear one to a rave just to look like a hipster. Of course, this leads to the next problem with trying to define cultural appropriation; that which is offensive to one person isn’t offensive to the next. It is impossible for one person to speak for an entire culture, especially when the culture has evolved as it is spread over so many countries and continents. So at the end of the day, what is cultural appropriation? I think the answer lies in understanding how to respect a culture. If you can come from a place of admiration of the culture as opposed to only admiring the item in question, you’re probably going to be okay. But if you’re wearing a bindi because you think “ooh, what a nice sparkly sticker!” I can guarantee you that you’ll be offending someone. If you wear a headdress because you think, “oh man, this is so hipster”, you’re doing it wrong. Do your research, understand what you’re wearing and why, and wear it in celebration of the culture, and odds are, you’ll be doing so in an unproblematic fashion- and that’s a pretty good goal to have. Words: 821

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4 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation: an exploration of what it is and how it works.

  1. Hey MayFlowerFair!
    Excellent post on cultural appropriation. I really liked the ways you connected this to your own experiences and how you didn’t fail to recognize that you don’t have all the answers about what is and is not considered cultural appropriation. It is important to recognize that there are many different ways to appropriate a culture. I noticed that in the victoria secret fashion show in 2012 Karlie Kloss was strutting down the runway wearing an indian headdress. What would your opinion on this be? I definitely think it is a prime example of disrespecting a culture. Overall great blog I really enjoyed reading it!

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  2. Mayflowerfair,

    I really enjoyed your blog, it was clear that the topic of cultural is something that you are both passionate, and well-informed. I totally agree with you that cultural appropriation is not a black and white issue: it seems like it really depends on the mindset, and end-goal of each individual appropriator, as it were. Culture is often the root of a person’s identity, and to belittle or mock it is completely unacceptable. Can you think of any examples of cultural appropriation in popular culture? I think that an analysis of that would be really interesting, and mesh with the curriculum. I really enjoyed the style and flow of this blog, it made for a great read!

    Can’t wait to read your next one!

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  3. Hi mayflowerfair,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on cultural appropriation, and for providing examples from your personal experience. I agree that wearing an item from another culture can still be disrespectful even when the item is not restricted. Thinking about your post, I realized that cultural appropriation is essentially a visual display of white privilege. Your bindi example is spot on: it is unfair that southasian women are demonized for wearing the bindi at the same time that it exists as a “hipser trend” among white women. I started thinking about how this kind of racism is systemic and institutional. For example, I have read several articles about African Americans being denied jobs and suspended from school for having dreadlocks; meanwhile, dreadlocks on white people are still considered “edgy”.

    I also agree, however, that it can sometimes be hard to recognize the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. You did your best to explain it with using examples from your own life – can you think of any examples from the media? What have been some examples of acceptable cross-cultural dressing? Of cultural appropriation? What made these examples appropriate or inappropriate to you? Have you ever discussed the subject with someone of your culture, and had them disagree with you?

    Thank you for the excellent post, and I look forward to your next one.

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  4. Hey Mayflowerfair,
    I liked the way you used examples from your own life to define the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Your story about bindis reminded me of this comic about appropriation of indian culture (https://40.media.tumblr.com/be3866bf31223a74383dfcaa478c3bae/tumblr_nkvlxuwpgI1rk7q17o1_500.jpg).
    Can you provide any examples of cultural approriation from other cultures? Do you think it’s possible to appropriate cultures that aren’t primarily POC (such as everyone claiming to be irish for st. paddy’s day celebrations)? Why or why not?

    Like

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