When we talk about cultural appropriation (or cultural misappropriation as it's called by many), lots of people get confused. Most people see it as a very complex and controversial topic but honestly, it is quite straightforward if you look at it from the minority group's perspective.
Let me start by defining culture?
What is culture?
Culture is the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. It is basically the way of life of a group of people. This can be the way they dress, the symbols they identify themselves by, the way (and kind of food) they eat, their rituals, their marriage ceremonies and of course, the way they bury their dead etc. Some cultures may be similar due to integration or intermarriage while others (in different geographical zones) may be exactly the same because of migration.
So what is cultural appropriation or misappropriation?
Cultural appropriation is the adoption of certain elements from a "minority" culture without the approval of people who belong to that culture. This is usually done by people from a dominant culture as they seek to use elements of a culture "sacred' to a particular group of people as a "fashion statement" or for other selfish and insensitive purposes. In most cases, this is done with little understanding of that group’s history, experience, and traditions.
The Difference Between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation.
Of course, it's quite difficult for a person to know everything about culture and set the rules on how not to offend others and keep everyone happy, but one thing is clear; if people tried to talk to others and get to know about their cultures, they would come to know what is sacred to them and how not to offend them. We as human beings appreciate different things and while in most cases, we don't mean others any harm, our ignorance can also hurt them. The hardest part is knowing how not to cross that thin line between appropriation and appreciation.
It is true that some cultures are open, while others are not. Most cultures can be quite hostile to outsiders who try to know them and for this reason, I do understand when people say they are having difficulties getting to know the cultures of certain minority groups. But can you really blame them? Many of these minority groups have been through a lot and as such, developed a "distaste" for outsiders. By randomly picking an aspect of a people's clothing style but not respecting or giving credit to the people who created all of it, you choose to engage with a certain people's culture without recognising their humanity or their struggles.
What is Cultural Appreciation?
Cultural appreciation can simply be defined as borrowing an element of a particular culture from a group of people and giving them the credit that belongs to them. In most cases, a person or group of people from a dominant group borrow elements of a culture from minority groups and also clearly give them credit for coming up with that custom.
Appreciation can also happen when someone who is known to admire a particular culture and is sympathetic to their struggles decides to adopt certain elements from that culture while also creating awareness about their plight or joining them in their struggle and fight for justice. It is also when a brand or an individual borrows elements of a culture from a particular people while clearly stating that it came from them, thereby, giving them the credit they deserve.
Let me cite an example in the case of U.S Senator, Bernie Sanders. He is known to have fought for equality as regards to minorities in the past. There are a few pictures of him on the internet getting arrested while protesting injustice done to minorities. He also joined the Native American protest against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. If for example, while protesting, he decided to don a tribal Native American hair dress (and the Native Americans are okay with that), he'd of course be applauded for promoting the culture while standing up for the oppressed people.
I can tell you that a lot of those people you see at Coachella wearing Native American headgears, have no idea the kind of struggles Native Americans have faced in the past or are still facing. This is one of the reasons why culture appropriation is very wrong. You cannot choose the parts of a minority culture you like while "playing" blind to their struggles. You cannot decide to adopt "only" the "fun" and "cool" parts of their culture while you've never experienced any of their struggles, felt their pain or at least tried to join their protests against the injustices done to them. If you are going to adopt elements of their culture, then get ready to face it all (both the positive and the negative). Make sure you go all the way!
In the case of white people wearing dreadlocks, I have to speak up and say that dreadlocks have appeared in many groups throughout the history of mankind. These groups range from Christians, Jews, to the Greeks, Hindus and of course African tribes and the Jamaican Rastafari. As a result, I disagree with the fact that dreadlocks belong to only one group. It doesn't, so if you want to rock dreads, please rock away!
You also have situations where a lot of women (mostly from dominant cultures) adorn their bodies with the Henna. To some, these beautiful works of art are harmless, but the nontraditional wearing of henna has been met with widespread outcries of cultural appropriation.
Maybe it is ignorance, I don't really know. Well, if it is, I can definitely help with that, by trying to shed some light on the tradition behind the Henna.
So What is The Henna?
Applying Henna or Mehendi is most commonly a wedding tradition among Muslim and Hindi brides. It is also worn during Hindu festivals like Karva Chauth, Vat Purnima, Diwali etc. Henna has been used to adorn young women's bodies as part of social and holiday celebrations since the late Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean. Prior to a Hindi wedding, a gathering is held for the bride and the women in her family to professionally do their Henna. This custom holds great cultural significance in Hinduism. It is so important that a Hindu wedding isn't really complete without the Henna. There's also a saying that goes: "the darker the henna, the deeper the love in the marriage."
I find it deeply upsetting and sad that a lot of people who know nothing about the significance of this custom, have adopted it as a means of making a fashion statement. They've even normalised it to a point where it's importance has started to diminish. Of course, it is still widely practiced within the Hindu communities but a unique custom that means so much to a group of people should not be someone else's form of fun, especially if the person in question does not know the significance of the custom.
Here's something you can do:
Pick up a microphone and a camera and go out on the streets of western countries and ask the girls and women you see with Henna where it originated from or what it signifies. You'd be very surprised to find out that a lot of them do it just because it looks cute and cool. None of them know the deep meaning behind the Henna. None!
They have no idea where it came from or how important it is to a particular group of people.
Honestly, I don't have a problem with people wearing whatever they want to wear. It is a free world so please, break a leg. But if you're going to adopt an element from another culture, please, understand that while it may mean nothing to you and is only a means of "looking cool" and "being trendy", it does mean the world to some people out there. So when you wear the Henna, for example, try to understand that it means something to a certain group of people and give them credit for it.
How Can People and Companies Be More Sensitive To Other People's Cultures?
As people, we can all do better in not appropriating other's cultures and showing them that we do recognise and respect the sacredness of their culture and how important it is to them. It is okay to be a member of a dominant culture and also be an admirer of certain elements of a minority group's culture. We just have to understand the importance of that culture to the group that owns it and also pay our respects when we borrow elements of the said culture from the group in question.
In The Case of Celebrities.
If you're a celebrity with a lot of followers and fans, it is rather important that you understand how influential you are. You have a voice and it is only fair that, while you may not necessarily be interested in politics, you understand that we live in very "political times." As a result of the times we live in, whatever you say or do has an impact on a lot of people. It is your duty to make sure (whether you are interested in politics or not) that the impacts of your actions on others are at least, positive.
Whenever you copy elements of a certain minority group's culture, please try to credit it to them, recognise their struggles and clearly state how much you respect them and the significance of their culture. Please understand that it is very insensitive to use an element of a minority group's culture as a fashion statement without stating where it came from and its significance. It's even worse when, just because you're a celebrity and you're influential, you end up starting a trend where people (especially the young ones) who know nothing about the origins of the culture you borrowed join in the appropriation of the said culture.
As a celebrity, it is only responsible that you use your status and influence to draw attention to the origins, the significance and the importance of that minority group's culture and use your social media pages as a means to educate others who aren't so informed on their struggles. Yes, culture does belong to people and can be seen as a property. So if you're going to borrow it, make sure you do it respectfully and understand its significance.
In The Case of Fashion Brands.
As for fashion brands, it is only fair to get the minority groups involved from the get-go. A lot of fashion houses appropriate culture and shamelessly steal elements of culture from minority groups without giving credit and respect where due. Times have changed and people are more aware. Fashion brands have to get these cultures (they copy from) involved, recognise how much they have contributed to their work and if possible, go as far as financially compensating them.
I'd give an example with the case of the Brazilian fashion company, Osklen and the Brazilian indigenous people, Asháninka. The popular Brazilian luxury brand Osklen is known to have a spring/summer collection named Asháninka. This collection includes garments inspired by the Asháninka culture and it must be noted that the use of this traditional knowledge, image and name was duly authorised by this indigenous community.
What makes me really happy about this is that Osklen signed a contract with the Asháninka people and have been given full permission for the commercial use of their traditions. The Asháninka indigenous people also received an amount of money which was used for the construction of a new school in their village amongst other things. Imagine how good it would be if fashion brands signed contracts with minority groups before using elements of their culture for business purposes? Wouldn't that be great?
It is quite sad that there are still a lot of people who see nothing wrong in copying elements of other people's cultures without giving credit where it's due. They see harmless "cross-pollination" while many of these minority communities see nothing but a lack of respect and utter disregard for their sacred practices. If you're going to pick an element of a particular people's culture because you think it's cool and not credit them for it, then you really need to have your head checked. If you must adopt a certain culture, then get ready to be a part of both the positive and the negative. Get ready to face the struggles that these minority groups face, because there is definitely no way you're going to enjoy the good times and then scram when the thorns and thistles present themselves.
This is one of the reasons why black folks get angry when white people borrow an element (or elements of) of their culture with giving them credit for it. Black people are still facing discrimination today like they faced in the past. As a white individual, you cannot borrow an element of their culture just because it makes you look cool on your Instagram and Twitter pictures, and then disappear or stay silent when a black man is shot dead by cops on the streets, a black woman is denied employment because of the colour of her skin or when young black people are subjugated to mass incarceration for minor offences. No! You have no right to do that! You have no right at all! If you're going to borrow elements of black culture, you're welcome to do it respectfully while crediting the black community for all of it. But you also have to join the struggle. You have to speak up when a black person is discriminated against and not remain silent or "sit on the fence."
As a black person, I find it unfair that some white people will choose to adopt elements of our culture and enjoy being cool (and other cool stuff that come with our culture), but when black people start getting "hate", they suddenly decide it's time to scram. You see, we black folks, can not decided to scram. Our skin colour isn't paint and we can neither wash it off nor remove it as if it's a piece of clothing.
In my opinion, borrowing the sacred practices of a culture does not constitute appreciation. Do you know what does? Educating yourself on that culture is what does. Eventually borrowing it and giving credit where it's due does. And if possible, lending a helping hand or a voice to the struggling minority is also a way of showing appreciation. That is what I think we should all practice.
Learn about other cultures, borrow as much as you want but please, do it respectfully and never forget to give the credit where it's due.
Only then will you be on your way to cultural appreciation.
Note: Please understand that my examples do not attack anyone. I only stated things as I've seen them. I've seen cases of white people appropriating elements of culture belonging to others, just as I've seen cases of blacks doing the same. I only hope that we can all have conversations on how to do better and respectfully learn about other cultures while not taking these cultures and minority groups for granted.
Believe me, (and this has nothing to do with being a politically correct liberal), as people from different cultures, we can all live together, learn about each other's cultures, borrow from each other if we choose to, understand the significance and the importance of such cultures to the groups that own them while also recognising and crediting them for the cultures we've adopted.
It is not political correctness, it is just being polite. And I'm definitely sure it is something a lot of us can try.