Is culture a fashion statement? Is it offensive to pick and choose aspects of a culture to wear every day? Can something as simple as your outfit perpetuate legacies of oppression?
The University of California, Santa Barbara’s Multicultural Center hosted an academic panel, followed by a fashion show, to answer these questions. Professors Felice Blake of the English department and Micaela J. Díaz-Sánchez of the Chican@ Studies department spoke on the panel, held on Tues., Feb. 23 and moderated by sociology professor Kum-Kum Bhavnani.
Some claim that it is difficult to know where to draw the line, but in general, the allegedly racist and identity-erasing costumes or fashion statements seen in themed parties, music videos and even on Halloween result in a rhetoric which alienates people of color and those who do not identify as white.
“Culture is a way for us to recognize our similarities with people that are a part of our community,” Minal, who preferred to omit her last name, said while dressed in a red-and-black Palestinian costume. “When you take that away from us, we no longer have any sense of community that we can share together.”
In other words, culture holds a large amount of importance to people of color. When a person who isn’t of that culture wears a significant article of clothing, it is interpreted as insensitive at best and as reinforcing years of historical oppression at worst.
When a South Asian person wears a bindi, it is seen by many members of society as “too ethnic” and such people have even been targeted for their choice of clothing. A New Jersey hate group called the “Dotbusters” was active for almost a decade, and their goal was to drive away the Indian population from New Jersey. However, when a white person wears a bindi it is often deemed as “cool” and “exotic.” The dichotomy between this cultural insensitivity and its acceptance by the larger society creates a rift between peoples who should stand united.
“Personally when I see someone wearing something from the Afghan culture, I feel like they don’t really know the meaning behind it,” Anosha Raziq, another model in the fashion show, said. “When you are raised in a culture, you truly appreciate it for all its beauty, its simplicity, but when you see someone sell it for profit, you just see a trend.”
This idea of selling a culture’s costume for profit is another trope seen in modern capitalism. Stores like Urban Outfitters and Forever 21 are guilty of selling Afghan, Mexican and other culture-inspired outfits for profit. The idea of not understanding the meaning behind the clothing you wear, especially if it has a significant meaning in the host culture, is considered by many to be problematic.
As third-year sociology major Imosemen Omiunu, dressed in a bright blue traditional Nigerian ankara, stated, “My culture is everything.”