IS CULTURAL APPROPRIATION INESCAPABLE?

The world, as we know it today, has become tremendously aware of its own prejudicial and imbalanced nature. Inequalities in music, film, education, profession and more, have dramatically risen to the surface of our collective consciousness within the past 5 years. With this catharsis came, not only a cultural division, but protection, against those who choose to exploit cultural values.


By Stephen Hinds-Day: Culture Columnist


The term ‘cultural appropriation’ is one that has its roots in academic origins, however it crawled its way into the zeitgeist around 2014, after reflections on the 2013 pop music industry exposed contradictions.

The 2013 charts became dominated by artists who evidently acquired some major influence from black culture. Artists like Justin Timberlake and Macklemore, who ascended the charts with their immensely popular singles and albums, went on to win a multitude of Grammys that year.

While this was commendable in its own right, the contradiction came with the fact that none of the leaders in the top 100 leader board were black. This was one of the stronger affirmations of a narrative that has permeated social history: “we want the fruits of Blackness, but not Black people”.

This oppressive imbalance is one of the things that essentially defines the term. Cultural appropriation is the exploitive and, often indecent, adoption of a culture’s customs by someone else entirely unrelated to it. A good example of this was seen back in 2012, when Karlie Kloss gowned a Native American headdress for a Victoria Secret’s fashion show. It was heavily criticized for being in poor taste and for turning a sacred item into a pageantry costume.

Kim Kardashian has had a repetitive history with cultural appropriation, one of the most significant being her decision to cornrow her hair on multiple occasions. Whilst she insisted her hair was a product of cultural inspiration, as opposed to appropriation, many amongst the black community believed it to be offensive.

Most recently, Kendall Jenner was placed under the scope of criticism this month, after launching her own Tequila brand ‘818’. Some fans have accused her of appropriating Mexican culture – to which “she has zero knowledge on” – as well as the farmers that have produced the tequila for her.

 It was Sophia Alice Callahan, known as the first Native American novelist for her 1981 novel Wynema, who said:

“No, no, my friend. You are kind, and you mean well, but you can never understand these things as I do”.

This quote astutely identifies one of two hearts that beats within cultural appropriation. This manifested cultural conflict culminates around a dissonance between the culture which is being represented and the person who is representing it.

When cultural mannerisms are being adopted by those who have no relation to, as well as understanding of, that culture, then using it for commercialised purposes immediately becomes offensive and inappropriate.



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A recent example of this was seen from world-renown artist Rihanna, where she posted an Instagram picture of her topless; coveted only by her arm, and a necklace with the Hindu deity Ganesh as a pendant. Many people, especially the Hindu community, have accused her of religious defamation and cultural ignorance for the post.

The other heart from which cultural appropriation lives upon, is when the culture being represented has a history of oppression and marginalisation. This is one of the scenarios where collaboration and “influence” can become detrimental; for improper usage can collude with this inextinguishable smog that perpetuates damaging stereotypes and ideologies of disadvantage.

In a cosmopolitan world that inevitably absorbs influence from each other, it seems almost implausible to believe cultural appropriation can be avoided. Perhaps, though, the effort should not be to avoid it, but to understand the different forms of appropriation and be aware of which are harmful and which are permissible:

“cultural appropriation is inescapable, but that is not to say all acts of appropriation are equal”, says Richard A. Rogers in his article reconceptualising the term.

Learning the often indistinguishable line between cultural exchange and cultural imperialism will allow people to utilise influence from other cultures freely. This line is coloured by equal cultural reciprocation and shared respect. This is to say, paying homage to the culture you are representing, and sharing influence with each other. Additionally, it is important to ensure there is no defamation in the process.

The integration of culture is what has enriched the very fabric of our world’s tapestry. Yet, exploitation and unjustified usage turns something positive into something negative. Does the future foretell a segregated and conflicted cultural atmosphere? Or can harmony and exchange pave the way for a healthier one?

The integration of culture is what has enriched the very fabric of our world’s tapestry. Yet, exploitation and unjustified usage turns something positive into something negative. Does the future foretell a segregated and conflicted cultural atmosphere? Or can harmony and exchange pave the way for a healthier one?


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