You may have recently heard the term ‘Cultural Appropriation’.. but many, may have never heard it and probably don’t understand it. It’s not a term that is used widely in conversation but with the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd bringing racism and discrimination to the forefront of our minds – I think it’s important to understand the difference between appreciation and appropriation.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?
Let’s begin with appreciation in the context to culture. That is when someone takes an interest and seeks to understand as well as learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their viewpoint and connect with others from different cultures. I actually think the Royal Tours are an example of this – they are taking the time to visit countries within the Commonwealth while learning and being given the opportunity to embrace different cultures.
Appropriation on the other hand, is simply taking one aspect of a culture that is not your own and using it for your own personal interest.
I think the most obvious example is taking a piece of jewellery or clothing that may be culturally significant and using it as a fashion statement.
EXAMPLES OF APPROPRIATION
I’m an Indian Muslim so it probably makes sense for me to give a few examples from my own culture:
Henna: the art of applying henna originated most likely in the Indian subcontinent. I love henna so much so in fact that I trained with the well known artist Ash Kumar to learn how to do it professionally because it’s just a beautiful art form and as an Indian woman, I felt it important for me to know how to apply henna properly. Originally, henna was used for weddings and religious festivities by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Overtime, it spread to the Middle East where Arabs used it for the same cultural and religious reasons. In Pakistan, it serves as an indication of the coming of age for a young woman. There is therefore a powerful significance to henna. However, in Western fashion, henna is now used as a method for applying temporary tattoos at the beach or a music festival and there is no connection to its special roots.
The Hamsa hand – also known as the Hand of Fatima or Hand of Miriam – is a symbol found frequently in the Middle East, North Africa, and western South Asia – particularly in connection to the Islamic and Jewish faiths. I personally find this one upsetting because I am Muslim. Together, the hand, eye, and the number five are significant factors in the Arab and Berber traditions, and they are used to ward off the evil eye – a curse believed to be cast by a jealous and dangerous glare, thus resulting in injury or misfortune. Furthermore, the five fingers are said to represent the Five Pillars of Islam. If you simply Google ‘The Hand of Fatima’ – there are too many search results showing the hand as a fashion symbol rather than a religious one. I once asked someone wearing a Hamsa hand if they were Muslim to find out that they had no idea that this was a symbol associated with Islam.
These are just two from my own cultural background. But there are so many others and I have to be honest here, I’m guilty of it too. I threw a Halloween party where it was themed around the Mexican Dia de Los Muertos. It was only after that party when I sat down and really thought about it that I realised that I had allowed myself to culturally appropriate this specific holiday without understanding the significance (- it is believed that the gates of heaven are opened on October 31, and the spirits of deceased loved ones reunite with their families). While I can’t change that this happened, I can and have certainly learned from it and it’s made me hyper aware about my own actions. In fact, it was my frustration around my own cultural symbols being used as fashion statements that led me to found out that I was guilty of appropriation myself. It’s embarrassing and sobering at the same time to realise how much I have still got to learn.
What it also goes to show is that mainstream media, social trends and lack of cultural understanding have allowed us to consider aspects of other peoples culture useful to our own ends.
I think there is a fine line between appropriation and appreciation.
Appropriation in my opinion involves a level of ignorance. Appreciation on the other hand focuses around respect and making an active choice to delve deeper and learn more.
For me, it’s easy to wear westernised clothes, not because I am culturally appropriating but more because the western culture almost demands that I assimilate. Perhaps it is the simple fact that I was born into the western culture, the more dominant of the two? I honest believe that if I chose to wear traditional ethnic clothing into the workplace, there would be a level of stigma attached to it – it feels to me almost like it is seen as unprofessional. Perhaps those from a western cultural background feel it therefore normal to appropriate from other cultures – do they see it as just a like for like exchange? I mean, I don’t think it is… but could it be?
If I take my partner for a moment, he is white. During my sister’s wedding, he was invited to wear traditional dress. At no point did it come across as a ‘costume’ but instead it showed that he was someone invited to engage in our culture. And in all fairness, he is a part of our family and so to not invite him to partake would be a failing on our part because by marrying me.. he was embracing my culture as I would be embracing his. I feel that is an example of cultural exchange and appreciation. Valuing cultural traditions rather than using them as a means to get likes on social media.
I personally feel this is a really difficult topic to navigate – do we stop eating pizza because it’s Italian, do we choose not to drink certain coffee brands because the beans are Brazilian…do we not buy a lamp in Morocco because it utilises an Arabian pattern? I don’t think that’s the case here … I think it’s about understanding that cultures are different and each one is unique and special. We have to respect that and value it, rather than disregard it. We need to understand what aspects of marginalised cultures have been appropriated, be aware of the exploitations and make informed choices when we choose to engage with other cultures.
When I see a white celebrity wearing a bindi – do I get annoyed?.. YES. It’s a symbol of the Hindu and Sikh cultures. It’s not a fashion accessory. I’m Indian, so that’s means that I can wear one right? No.. I’m muslim. Therefore it is not a part of my culture despite me being Indian, do I need to wear it? No. The bindi is actually another beautiful nuance afforded to us as Indians. Even within the Indian culture, there a unique differences and we ourselves need to be mindful of those.
Just in case you wonder what the bindi actually is: it has always been a red dot worn on the forehead, most commonly to represent a married woman. The bindi is also said to be the third eye in Hindu religion, and it can be used to ward off bad luck.
Western culture is an amalgamation of so much that has been chopped and tossed together that often we know that something is appropriated but it’s now so embedded into the westernised culture that it is hard to let go of.
This post isn’t about telling people what to wear, it’s about helping us all understand that cultural appropriation is in itself a big and real issue – quite simply because it can demonstrate an imbalance of power and a disregard of culture – a reminder that there we those that we colonised and those that were the colonisers.
Some more articles that are worth reading on this:
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this… comment below.