Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
There’s a fine line concerning cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, and it’s first important to acknowledge the fact that people’s stances on the subject are quite varied. What one person may find okay, another might find disrespectful and so straddling the line of whether this form of emulation is ever really appreciative can be hard to decipher. However, no matter where you look, cultural appropriation is constantly happening around us. This is most notably in the fashion industry and it’s important to consider one key question: can emulation ever be appreciation or is it always offensive?
There are many forms of cultural appropriation happening all around us. One must not forget that blues was the music of the slaves; dreadlocks are a staple of Caribbean culture; saris are a beautiful traditional attire originating from India. Yet all three along with many others have worked their way into many cultures where they didn’t originate from. While African-American musicians still dominate blues, it hasn’t stopped white artists from exploring the genre either. Dreadlocks appear all throughout the world and often don the heads of many white people, and Saris are often worn by non-native Indians when attending an Indian wedding. None of these examples may seem inherently bad on first glance, but there’s more to the picture you have to consider.
Let’s take a step back. Let’s consider what has a more ‘unanimous’ rejection than the murky examples above. More people are starting to agree it’s insensitive to wear an ‘Indian’ Halloween costume when it is evidently a costume of a Native American. Firstly, it’s completely culturally inaccurate, and secondly, it seems insensitive to dress as a Native American when the design is built off stereotypes, inaccuracies, and with no inherent appreciation for the culture in question. The costume is built for laughs or fun, and it holds no regard to the persecution and history of the Native Americans. Although, this isn’t the only example. Any costume or dress-code built off a cultural stereotype is largely deemed offensive because they often play off negative stigma that large amounts of people have about different cultures and this can never be seen as a form of appreciation. It’s outright offensive and people are thankfully starting to realise they need to stay away from this form of appropriation.
Another form of appropriation that actually happens quite a lot is the ‘borrowing’ of a culture’s iconography and using it in a different way than it was intended. Many American sports teams steal their names from Native American tribal names or poach the imagery of their mascots from tribal artworks. This also happens in Australia with Aborigines and even (although to a lesser extent) England with the use of Celtic or pagan symbols that are taken without context. The reason this is insensitive is that it often disregards the iconography’s true meaning and over-time people begin to associate the symbol with the wrong idea or principle and in effect begins to erase a significant part of history. It leads to a form of ignorance as people fail to consider something’s true meaning.
That said, this appropriation is not always as clear-cut. In recent years, there’s been a huge boom in tattoos that use imagery and iconography associated with different cultures. From using images of the Buddha, symbols relating to Taoism and even the copying of indigenous tribal tattoos from those like the Māori people, the Western world often has poached imagery without comprehending its significance. Simply put – just because it looks ‘cool’ doesn’t justify getting it tattooed on your body. Despite this, there are genuine arguments put forward that also question whether a tattoo like this is always disrespectful. There’s certainly a strong case put forward when you have people who genuinely understand the significance of the symbol or iconography they are having tattooed on themselves. They’re enforcing its significance to themselves as well as their appreciation for that culture. Yet, in a similar situation like someone travelling to New Zealand and having an indigenous person give them a tribal tattoo, it suddenly feels less divisive. It’s certainly more acceptable than having a western artist steal the design from a culture they know nothing about. Then again these tribal tattoos are much more than just an aesthetic for the Māori people. So there really must be a deep-seated appreciation or bigger understanding of the significance of the design to really ever justify it. Even then you have to consider, is it achieving this appreciation you think it is?
Now, this brings back to my first examples: blues, dreadlocks and saris and in fact, I think we can apply it to anything that we may ‘borrow’ from another culture. If we ask ourselves some key questions, we can then begin to understand if we’re appropriating the culture or if we’re trying to appreciate it. Is it likely to cause offence to a native or in general? Do I understand its significance? Have I taken it out of context? Do I understand its history? These are four questions that can really make a difference and help you navigate the fine line of cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. But ultimately, if you’re unsure, then leave it out. Trust your instincts because potentially harming another person’s beliefs or threatening their culture is never something you should strive for or be unsure on.