Don’t Appropriate What You Don’t Understand


Maddy Kirsch

Urban Outfitters puts Hindu deities on crop tops displayed next to high waisted “cheeky” shorts. Katy Perry performs at the AMAs in a kimono, complete with an ultra high slit and a chest cut-out. Selena Gomez wears a bindi in her sultry music video. Somebody is profiting off of all this appropriation and it is definitely not the cultures that these symbols come from.

There is certainly a line between appreciation and appropriation, and it is certainly blurry. Maybe it’s sometimes okay for a white girl to dress up like a Native American or for American college students to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Maybe it depends on context and intention. But what is certainly not okay is for billion dollar industries to exploit power structures, mine historically marginalized cultures for fashion pieces, and market them on skinny American models as exotic and sexy.

When Vanessa Hudgens, Kendall Jenner, Selena Gomez and the like sported bindis at Coachella two weekends ago, they trivialized the bindi’s religious significance and essentially gave a fat middle finger to the Indian-American community.

Here is what I mean: Hudgens et al. wore the bindi as a decoration and got to look festival-ready to the delight of their twitter followers. Meanwhile, 2014 Miss America winner Nina Davuluri (who actually has Indian heritage) performed a Bollywood dance in a sari and bindi for her talent act and was slammed with racist criticism. “Miss America is Not American!” and, “Miss America? You mean miss 7-11,” that same Twitterverse responded.

Hudgens is embraced as fashion pioneer and Davuluri is rejected and told to go back to where she came from. Davuluri has to deal with prejudice and complexities that come along with claiming her cultural identity. Hudgens gets to dance around for the cameras without carrying any of that extra baggage. That, my friends, definitely falls on the appropriation side of the line.

But what about the average person–someone who is not trying to be a fashion icon or make a profit? Certainly not every person who wears a bindi and is not of South Asian descent is committing an offense. Where do we draw the line?

Money, power, and celebrity recalibrate the appreciation-appropriation scale. A woman outside the public eye who wears a skimpy Eskimo costume because she likes the aesthetics of fur trim could be slightly insensitive, but she doesn’t pack as much punch as companies and celebrities who repurpose traditional cultural symbols for their own personal branding.

The larger conversation on cultural sensitivity is only just beginning. In 2011, an Ohio University campaign designed to curb culturally appropriating Halloween costumes garnered national attention. In one campaign poster, a girl of Japanese descent sorrowfully holds a photo of someone dressed up as a geisha, accompanied by the tag line, “This is who I am, and this is not ok.” Other posters followed the same formula: a Latino boy holds a photo of somebody wearing a sombrero/poncho combo and a boy of Middle Eastern descent frowns on someone dressed as a terrorist.

The Internet apparently thought the campaigners needed to loosen up a bit; a series of memes mocking the original posters began to trend. The memes showed Hermione offended by someone wearing a wizard costume and Jake Sully from Avatar offended by someone who had painted himself as a blue Na’vi. The memes ironically kept the slogan, “We’re a culture, not a costume.”

The costumes from the original campaign are clearly appropriation rather than appreciation, as the campaigners needed to choose the most offensive examples possible to make their point salient. But the Internet’s strong reaction was warranted–an instinctual retaliation against a threat toward free speech. The meme creators understood the danger in taking our fear of insensitivity too far, to the point of banning cultural borrowing altogether.

We need to make room for people who legitimately admire a culture outside their own and want to express that admiration. We need to allow for costumes that are nuanced and satirical; costumes that use cultural stereotypes for social commentary. An intercultural exchange and intercultural dialogue is certainly better than building blockades. Our task is to make sure the exchange is fair.

So let’s all be more conscious of where our actions weigh in on the appreciation-appropriation scale. Most importantly, let’s remember how power and money multiply the effects of appropriation.

It’s time to unfollow celebrity culture vultures who mock important symbols by considering only their aesthetic value. And it’s time to boycott institutions that profit by picking and choosing what they please from other cultures, without having to deal with the more challenging parts of belonging to that particular group. But let’s hold off on policing everyone who dresses outside cultural lines–just ask them to reflect on why they do so.