The complex concept of cultural appropriation

Vithoria Escobar

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Native americans costumes. Turbans as a fashionable accessory. Box braids as a trendy hairstyle . Can people really wear wherever they want or is there a limit?

“To appropriate” means to take something for your own use, usually without permission.
Cultural appropriation is an anthropological therm which refers when elements of a certain culture or of certain social groups are used by people who don’t belong to this culture or to this social group.

The concept has an political reflection and a negative connotation as it mostly happens when dominating groups use elements from dominated groups and that’s the main difference from the concept of cultural exchange. It is the power of the privileged to use and normalise a cultural element of a oppressed culture, while the appropriated group is often and historically excluded and oppressed because of that very cultural element.

Cultural appropriation can include any cultural element that is originally part of a certain social group: hairstyles, accessories, music, art, religious element or even social behaviour. These elements, once removed from their original cultural contexts might assume different meanings or can even have their meaning reduced. Culture is a universe of symbols. Images and aesthetics have their roots from history and human experiences. For example, a turban is not an simply accessory,  it is a culture symbol with complex and deep meanings that involves empowerment. In the black culture, when you wear a turban you are not wearing a simply fashionable accessory but you’re wearing an element that means resistance and proud of their roots.

Obviously, no one is forbidden to do anything. But when you choose to wear these cultural elements, you should consider the ethics above the aesthetics: is there any limits when it comes to wear something with such a deep meaning purely for fashion?

Recently,  people started to recognise culture appropriation as a problematic issue, but we still see loads of people appropriating elements from other culture as they were trendy or fashionable.
The main issue is not simply wearing something but wearing it without a proper knowledge or meaning of its symbolic value. Where does it come from? What does it represent?

In 2016, Amandla Sternberg and Quinn Masterson made a video called “Don’t Cash Crop my Cornrows” and is basically a incredible and complete explanation of cultural appropriation and black culture.

Amandla talks about the importance of the hair in black identity and how it relates to hip-hop culture. She also mentions the process that made brands and celebrities popularise and appropriate of black culture, explaining that white people started wearing accessories, clothes and certain hairstyles that belongs to the black culture. When that happens, the oppressor is seen as trendy and popular while the oppressed remains excluded and marginalised.

As it was said before, everyone is free to do whatever they want, but it’s important to think historically, that we live in a world where there is a dominant culture, a certain model to be followed and a certain aesthetic standard.  When it is observed a interest from these dominant groups in elements from oppressed groups, these elements suffer a process of elitism and their history and roots are forgotten. It is a complex process that involves privileges, inequality and disrespect; even with the best of intentions, for example, compliment a different culture.

For those speaking from positions of power, the idea of cultural appropriation may be seen as an insult against their historical liberty to participate in cultures freely—a liberty that has often resulted in everything from cultural annihilation and loss to colonization. – Kovie Biakolo

Evidently, it’s really important to exist cultural exchange and not to segregate any culture or social group. Culture is dynamic, it changes over time, it mixes with other cultures producing new symbols and histories. However, what it shouldn’t be done is to turn cultural symbols into a consumer product or fashion goods.

People can wear whatever they want as long as it doesn’t interfere or disrespect to other people’s culture. If you are interested in a certain culture, it’s important to build a reciprocal and respectful transition: listen to what these people have to say and ask them to teach you how their culture is truly seen and appreciated.

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Vithoria Escobar