“Have you forgotten, that once we were brought here, we were robbed of our names, robbed of our language, we lost our religion, our culture, our God, and many of us by the way we act, even lost our minds!” – Dr. Khalid Muhammad
Cultural Appropriation – what’s the big deal? You should be able to ‘express yourself’ in whatever way you want to right? Let’s talk…
So, let’s strip it back – in it’s most simple and rudimentary definition, Cultural Appropriation is basically when an individual decides to adopt, without consent, certain elements of a culture that is not their own.
Sound simple? Still don’t see what all the fuss is about?
Well, that’s because that basic definition fails to account for the fact that Cultural Appropriation is rooted in systematic power circles whereby individuals from dominant cultures (who are therefore in an elevated position of power and privilege) take the ‘attractive’ and ‘exotic’ parts of another culture. These ‘non-dominant’ cultures are one’s that have been systematically oppressed and often pillaged by the ‘dominant culture’. (Maisha Z. Johnson)
Before I continue, it is extremely important to recognise that Cultural Appropriation is categorically NOT the same as cultural exchange or assimilation.
Cultural Appropriation is often compared to Assimilation, which is not only insulting but highlights a lack of knowledge as a whole.
Assimilation is where marginalised or oppressed cultures assimilate to, or imitate, the dominant culture as a means of survival. I remember, even as a child, my parents would tell me countless stories about the experience my grandparents had when they first came to this country and the horrific racism that they were faced with. Throughout history, we were told if we didn’t attempt to assimilate the dominant, in this case, white culture then we simply did not belong because we were not making any efforts in an attempt to ‘fit in’ and were then ostracised.
Assimilation was not a choice – it was survival.
Cultural Appropriation is a choice.
A choice made by individuals as an ‘expression of privilege’ – the picking and choosing of which bits of a marginalised culture are attractive or edgy enough to be adopted and made ‘cool’.
It is both harmful and damaging and is not taken seriously.
People of colour have to work twice as hard to have access to the same opportunities. We are discriminated against, sometimes by people even unknowingly. That is why it is so important to have this conversation.
We’ve had our lands taken from us, our lives destroyed, families torn apart. we’ve been raped, lynched, pillaged. We’ve now ‘seemingly’ moved away from the overt systematic slavery, rape and murder that we were once made to endure. However we are still left with this ever-present pattern of continuity – our cultures are still being taken from. Sadly, we are still in a society where cultural appropriation is all around us and often, people really do not see ‘what the big deal is.’ Aside from the fact that the act of cultural appropriation is entwined with white supremacy, it takes from “less dominant” cultures (usually Black, Asian, Indigenous and Hispanic cultures are targeted) without giving them the credit or respect that is rightly deserved. It shadows and embodies the way in which these cultures have constantly been taken from. You only have to google the British Empire to know this to be true.
Cultural appropriation takes many a form, it takes from the very fabric of our being. It’s present in music, in art, in fashion and even in tattoos. It is completely exploitative. The different examples are endless, but context also plays a massive part in distinguishing its acceptability.
If I were to list every single example of cultural appropriation, I would be writing a 10 part saga. However, I think it is extremely important to speak about a few of the most basic examples with context, that by, talking about can aid the spread of knowledge.
Growing up, I was extremely insecure, I wanted to fit in more than anything else. I definitely confirmed to white standards of beauty and believed my dark curly hair was not to be desired. My mum would send me to school in braids every single day and I remember being young in primary school being teased and feeling ugly. Learning to love my hair was a struggle. Now, people of dominant cultures wear traditionally Black and Indian hairstyles and receive only positive attention for being ‘edgy’. Positive attention for the same traditional hairstyles that women of colour are told are unprofessional. It would be unrealistic to expect every single person to understand the value and importance of certain parts of a culture, but that does not mean that they should be invalidated.
I think it’s important to note that I’m fully aware that many people do not have malicious intentions and are unaware of why cultural appropriation is damaging but ignorance doesn’t make it acceptable. Which is why it is so crucial to educate yourselves and understand the meaning and significance of the cultures that you are ‘borrowing’ from.
The bindi, for example, holds deep spiritual significance, and means something different for every Indian woman. It represents the ajna chakra, the third eye. For some time, I have been in a personal conflict with myself in the decision to start wearing a bindi. During this process, I have found myself continually asking:
‘what will my employers think?’ ‘is it unprofessional?’ ‘Can I wear it when I train or is that being too ‘extra’?’ ‘Will people look at me differently when I’m out in public?’ ‘Will I be taken seriously?’ ‘Will my voice be heard?’ ‘Are people going to think I’m fresh?’ ‘Am I going to be respected?’
The fact that I even have these thought processes when simply considering to express my spirituality is not acceptable and is something that I am actively working to change. I’ve witnessed several Indian women who wear Bindis on a daily basis, be classified as ‘fresh’ ‘backwards’ or ‘too traditional’.
We live in a society where we are labelled, we are made to feel alien for embracing such a symbol of spirituality. However, when people of the dominant culture or the likes of Selena Gomez or Ellie Goulding wear a bindi – it’s cool, its edgy, it’s sexy.
In all seriousness, I have no problem with cultural exchange. I don’t mind if someone chooses to wear a bindi – that is, if they fully understand it’s meaning, it’s deep spiritual significance and is worn with respect. I am yet to come across someone who can tell me why they are wearing it.
The examples don’t stop there, we have tribal tattoos, Native American headdresses being worn at festivals, Katy Perry performing as a Geisha, blackface as ‘Halloween Costumes’, the appropriation of music, to name a few – the lists are endless.
Our cultures are taken from, never credited or appreciated.
It’s time that people take responsibility for what it is that is being endorsed, promoted and tolerated. It is important to ask yourselves are your actions respecting another’s culture? As a society, it is crucial that people stop looking for ways to justify appropriation, to stop belittling ethnic cultures for being ‘too sensitive’ and to fully understand that it is not necessary for you to claim something in order to appreciate its beauty.
Appreciating cultures is a beautiful thing, and there are ways for you to do this without taking from them. Learn about the cultures you’re taking from, understand their history and use your voice to support their fight.
Ignorance is no longer an excuse.
Raise your vibration.
Love and Peace
– Jasmine Reinah