So… it’s Coachella season. Get ready for photos of people clad in tribal paint, Native American headdress, cornrows, bindis, you name it. It’s a discussion that erupts every April because of people’s blatant display of cultural appropriation.
What’s cultural appropriation? It is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture, in religion, music, language, or sports, without permission. It’s an issue that is most prevalent in media and in fashion.
In 2013, at the AMA’s, Katy Perry performed a rendition of her hit, “Unconditionally”. The stage was festooned with a flurry of rice paper screens, cheap plastic cherry blossoms, ginormous paper fans, and lanterns. The singer herself was dressed in a hybrid between a kimono and a cheongsam, with a strategically placed cutout right above her breasts, and two slits down each leg. Her entourage was dressed alike, doing splits and flips on aerial silks. Phyllis Lee, a journalist from MIC, summarizes the fiasco: “Between the lack of Asian women on stage, the heavy-handed use of bowing and shuffling around in the choreography, and the ethno-confused set and costume design, Perry presented her viewers a one-dimensional Eastern fantasy drawn by a Western eye right out of the gate.”
Although the fanfare of the whole performance was entertaining, it feeds into the culture of appropriation that has been prevalent. At the end of the day, Perry was able to take off the tacky geisha makeup off of her face, but nothing will be able to remove the harm it has done in contributing to the age-old fetishization of Asian women in the west, and in reinforcing uninformed stereotypes that people perceive of Asian culture. The culture gets stripped of its significance, and merely becomes an accessory or a prop. This is appropriation.
Several other cultures are subject to this kind of exploitation too. For example: the Native American warbonnet. Holding great political and spiritual value, it’s seen as a symbol of honor in Native American culture, and is reserved for those who have been formally recognized — usually respected elders and men. More likely than not, the half-dressed and fully intoxicated people of Coachella probably have not been recognized at such a high stature for them to be wearing the headdress.
Cultural appreciation is different from appropriation. Firstly, it promotes a deeper understanding of the culture you’re representing. Do you know the cultural significance of what you’re wearing? Secondly, it doesn’t just exploit it as an accessory. It doesn’t strip the beauty, the authenticity, and the reality away from the icon. It’s okay to want to celebrate another culture if you respect it and truly care for it. But when you sexualize it or humiliate it, you are crossing the fine line between appreciation and appropriation.
Cultural appreciation also doesn’t promote already existing stereotypes, and doesn’t feed into its harmful generalization. It’s all about your intent, your execution, and its implications.
We live in such a multicultural world — especially here in ISKL, so it’s hard to know when you’re being offensive or stepping on any toes. A lot of times, the line between appropriation and appreciation gets blurred. The next time you’re torn on whether or not you’re misappropriating a culture, think: do I know what this represents? Am I wearing this because I’m celebrating the culture, and not as a fashion accessory? Will I appropriately represent the culture, and not feed into harmful stereotypes? If the answer is no to all these questions, it’s probably time to reconsider. It’s a process of awareness that all of us need to go through, so that we can share and exchange cultures respectfully, and with value.