Cultural Appropriation is not Fashion.

Other people’s cultures are not ours to take.

Cultural appropriation is defined as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” A specific memory I have from ethnic studies class was when a fellow student rose his hand and said that he believed that white people wearing headdresses is wrong. Later that month, I went to a rave and I saw that same student there, wearing a headdress. I went up to him and asked, “aren’t you the guy that said wearing headdresses is wrong?” He simply replied, “it’s cool, we’re at a rave. Everyone wears feathers in their hair.” Why is wearing a headdress all of a sudden “cool” just because we are at a rave? I began to realize that a lot of people tend to justify cultural appropriation by calling it fashion. Is it fashionable for a white man to wear a headdress or for a white woman to wear a kimono with white powder on her face? The cultures of other ethnicities should not equate to fashionable accessories for white people. Just because you think a bindi is “cute”, does not mean you should wear one.

Hawaiian Culture

At the same rave where I saw the headdress hypocrite, I also saw a bunch of girls in line wearing hula skirts and coconut bras. I did not think anything of these girl’s outfits at first. It was not until I learned about Hawaiian culture appropriation that I learned the history of exploitation of the Hawaiian people. Hawaiian themed parties are very common in western society, but do people even understand the history behind hula dancers and leis? In Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance, bell hooks describes ethnicity as a spice. Ethnicity is simply there to add to “the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.” I believe this quote is completely accurate. White culture is based off of taking other’s cultures. We know nothing about Hawaiian culture, so why do we take advantage and use it as a theme for a fun party? For years, white people exploited and killed Hawaiian natives, and we made Hawaiian people suppress their culture in an attempt to make them more “white”. We took meaningful history of the Hawaiian people and commercialized it into cheap props for themed parties. Hula dancing and hula skirts are meant to be traditional and meaningful aspects of Hawaii, but they are now seen as hypersexual costumes that women can wear on Halloween.

Hula girl costume

Dreadlocks

At the 2015 Oscars, Zendaya, was on the red carpet with dreadlocks in her hair in hopes of promoting natural hair appreciation for black women. Zendaya was called out by television personality Giuliana Rancic, who said Zendaya’s hair looked like it smelled of “patchouli oil … or weed.” Regardless of the fact that dreadlocks are typically associated with African culture, Zendaya was still harshly criticized for trying to represent her ethnicity.

Zendaya at the 2015 Oscars

Other popular celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Kylie Jenner have also worn dreadlocks but instead of being criticized, they are praised for their fashion sense. Both Lady Gaga and Kylie Jenner are white women with no intention of wearing dreadlocks to display their culture, but instead to make an edgy fashion statement.

Japanese Culture

Kimono’s, which are traditional and formal Japanese clothing, are being sold in Forever 21 stores nationwide. This very formal item of clothing has been westernized and turned into a staple piece for every girl in her closet. Kimono’s in Forever 21 stores do not even look like the traditional Japanese kimono’s, yet we still use the word “kimono” to describe the item of clothing.

Forever 21 kimono
Traditional Japanese kimono

Why is cultural appropriation a problem?

I understand that a lot of the cultural appropriation that happens is not with bad intent. Some might even find that calling out cultural appropriation nowadays has gone too far, and that everything we see is now considered appropriated. In fact, it is so popular in today’s society to see people use other’s cultures, that it almost does not seem like it is offensive anymore. However, the reason why it is not seen as offensive anymore has to do with the fact that we have been so exposed to cultural appropriation that we do not blink an eye when we see someone dressed as a Native American at a Halloween party. We see cultural appropriation everywhere around us that we have become numb and are beginning to accept it.

There is the argument that wearing headdresses, bindis, dreads, and kimonos only shows cultural appreciation and not culture appropriation.

Here is the problem with that.

Taking from other people’s cultures and using it for our own advantage will only devalue that culture. It is essentially taking it and saying, “I’m just going to borrow something from you that means a lot and that you have a history with, and wearing it because I like the way it looks.” When white people take other’s cultures and embody it like it is their own, they are underestimating the importance of the culture. Appropriating demonstrates that white people can come and take as they please without dealing with the consequences that an Native American man wearing a headdress or a Hindu women wearing a bindi might have to deal with. Bell hooks states that “the world of fashion has also come to understand that selling products is heightened by the exploitation of Otherness.”