“Otherness has been part of my identity for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a predominantly White town with little to no diversity outside of myself and my family gave me pause as to who I was meant to be as a person. I grew up believing that White was right and my Indian way of living was meant to be left at home, where others could not judge me. From the hair oil my mother would coat my curls in…to the spicy snacks I would munch on during snack time- I was ridiculed to the point of finding it necessary to change my behaviors. But now, coconut oil is touted as a life changing ingredient meant to be rubbed all over our bodies to make us look glowy and beautiful. Where was that love when I was in school? Why is it appreciated the moment that White people take over the trend? Why are my classmates from high school deeming it acceptable to appropriate the very culture they once humiliated me for partaking in?”
[The above reflection is offered by Shahana Ghosh, an Indian woman and sophomore here at NYU, who is also the guest author of this blog post.]
Cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation are vastly different concepts that differ with the mindset that each are entered with. From Native American headdresses to Mexican sombreros, and now to overdrawn lips and cornrows and…did we mention #whitegirlsreclaimthebindi (FYI, it never belonged to them to begin with…). With the world growing smaller and smaller, it is important to remember that not everything you see can be yours to take. Everything you take comes with a history and hundreds of years, if not more, of love and ancestry and tradition. Every time you take something and reclaim it, you colonize yet another piece of the identity of people of color.
Kylie Jenner’s lip kits are quite seriously the biggest thing to have happened in the beauty world in a while. But they stem from her choosing to overdraw her lips and use fillers to puff them up, reminiscent of a black woman’s naturally pouty lips. Yet when MAC cosmetics posted a black woman’s lips on Instagram, she was cut to pieces for her beautiful, full mouth. This only reaffirms that “Society cuts and commercializes pieces of Black culture for white consumption.” (Johnson, 2015). Why this paradox of wanting aspects of a culture, but choosing to disregard the people and heritage from which they stem? Well, it’s all rooted in power. The power of the taker and the lack of power of the one from which they are taking. It’s confusing to see a White woman glorified for changing her appearance, but for a Black woman who has those features naturally to be demeaned. Furthermore, society generalizes negative stereotypes of Black and Brown culture while “celebrating” these particular aspects of dress, appearance, music, and cultural tradition by “making them their own.” By reinventing them. By colonizing them.
White America has shown time and time again that this idea of appreciating is more along the lines of stealing. Shahana Ghosh further reflects on her experience with cultural appropriation:
“Seeing the people I went to high school with donning bindis with crop tops and revealing outfits at music festivals is beyond confusing to me. I was once too embarrassed to actually wear a bindi with traditional Indian garb. I hated the question ‘What’s that red dot your people wear?’ complete with a finger stabbing towards the middle of their own forehead as if I had no idea where it would go. Aunties and uncles urged me to complete my outfits with beautiful bindis, but I would shake my head no and say I just didn’t like them. This was a boldfaced lie, I adore bindis of all sorts; my mother has had a cookie tin full of pages of bindis from the time I can remember. I loved peering into the box and picking out bindis to wear with different outfits. But I would always cower away from the opportunity to actually wear one in public. If I was in dance class, or temple and they pressed sandalwood or turmeric onto my forehead as a symbolic bindi, I would quickly wipe it off before heading out. Why is it that when I or my fellow Indian women wore these traditional pieces we were mocked, but a blonde haired blue eyed American does it and is applauded for her exotic accessory?”
There is a fine line between appropriation and appreciation and crossing it can offend multitudes of people. Then of course, there is the question of who is responsible for drawing that line. Folks who have written on this topic sarcastically refer to the “cultural appropriation police” who call celebrities or fashion designers racist. This is so reductionist and demonstrates the power of Whiteness. By their very nature, any list that outlines what is okay and what is not okay, makes us question who the author is, and, regardless of their race, whether they have internalized the dominant Whiteness narrative or whether they are applying a critically conscious lens to their analysis.
A prime example of this mentality comes from the controversial topic of the Washington Redskins team name. The team has made claims that the name is meant to honor Natives and “keep tradition.” But the sad tradition that this team is upholding by keeping its name is the one where many White people participated in scalping or cutting off the genitals of Native Americans to show state governments and other companies to prove their “Indian Kills.” This is not a “tradition” that should be celebrated or treated as honorable. It is a shameful act and is demeaning to the many natives who are still suffering from atrocities that were committed. So no, it is not okay to tell Native Americans that the team name of “Redskins” is meant to honor their past. Offense is determined by the person who feels it, not by the offender.
This is an essential point. What is most telling about White folks exerting the privilege to decide when something is racist or not, is this ever present argument: “But, I didn’t mean any harm.” “My intentions were good.” Intent, you see, is not enough. As with racial microaggressions made against folks of color, what is of the utmost importance is the impact. The outcome. The fact that someone is harmed by these seemingly well-intentioned actions.
Young people are now educating others on what it means to be cultural appropriators and how to avoid potentially harmful mistakes. Amandla Stenberg of the Hunger Games movie series created a video chastising several celebrities for their lack of respect for black women, but appropriation of Black culture. She ended the video with the question “What would America be like if we loved Black people as much as we loved Black culture?” This question is important because it also defines the difference between what can be taken as appropriation versus appreciation. Choosing to “borrow” certain aspects of another culture, especially as a celebrity, while consciously choosing not to use your power to show your overall support for that culture, shows a serious lack of consideration for the culture as a whole and for the people who are part of it. Showing love for Black and Brown women and people can seriously alter the underlying meaning that people show when they try to share in a different culture. There are such things as appreciation and cultural exchange, but those come with altered mindsets that highlight the serious need to respect others and decolonizing, not re-colonizing, the cultures of people of color.
The act of appreciating or participating in cultural exchange is one that is often not explained to people. It is important to bring this back to a conversation about systemic racism, or the systematizing of how we- across all institutions of society- problematize Black and Brown bodies while privileging and normalizing White bodies.
We can softly refer to this as the infiltration of unconscious or implicit bias, but really what we mean is racism. Racism as a system of advantages and disadvantages based on race. So, when we think about culturally appropriating the dress, appearance, music, and cultural traditions of people of color, we are actually seeing racism in action. We are seeing the dominant race selectively capitalize on aspects of cultures that they, and society writ large, dehumanize and denigrate everyday.
What we have to do is consider what we know, borrow, and express from other cultures. For example, consider how we teach our kids about diverse cultures, i.e. other than the dominant White ideology. “Diversity might be the inclusion of a lesson about Chinese-American contributions to American infrastructure within a lesson about westward expansion. It might also be learning about traditional Native American garments during November lessons about the observation of Thanksgiving at Plymouth colony. In both cases, diversity signifies the inclusion of communities on the margins in ways that do not decenter dominance, but actually insulate it.” (Samudzi, 2016). We selectively exploit parts of other cultures by emphasizing either what they contributed to the dominant White ideology or by tokenizing them and isolating them to one role as the oppressed group in a discriminating history. An extension of how this plays out is our understanding of restorative practices. Schools are championing this new alternative discipline method that builds community and changes minds. What we are leaving out is the indigenous roots of talking circles. If our conversation is limited to the context of the “first Thanksgiving” narrative then we completely discount seminal contributions of the Navajo nation, for example, to the way we think about community engagement, activism and justice. Society positions itself to appropriate talking circles and repackage them in a box that makes them seem new and innovative. Groundbreaking! This theft is further evidence of a dominant White narrative that must be decentered in order to truly appreciate the folks who it “Others.”
The question then of course is “What is not racist?” It’s easy to point out mistakes, but often harder to highlight the correct path to take. The conversation about culture can be a difficult one, but it’s an important one to have so as to avoid the unnecessary potential display of offense. A prime example of cultural exchange and appreciation is Rihanna’s robe from the 2015 Met Gala. The theme was “China: Through the Looking Glass” and while many people were nervous about the impending culturally appropriative garb that would be displayed, the general public was pleasantly surprised by Rihanna’s decision to find an outfit made by a Chinese designer. She easily could have chosen a similar dress from a White designer, who would have been stealing the design from Chinese culture, but instead she honored the culture and showed her appreciation through her decision. This kind of an act is far greater than what the average person can accomplish, but something more everyday would be choosing to buy jewelry and more specific items from people who are relevant within the culture. Finding Native American jewelry online that is authentic and made by Native American artists who are passing on their knowledge of their culture means so much more than purchasing overpriced items from stores like Urban Outfitters that are simply stealing and, once again, flexing their power over marginalized groups.
There is a deeper layer to the story of cultural appreciation and it stems from love. It is love that is shown for the women and men whose cultures you want to partake in that will bring our world closer together. It is one thing to be stealing parts of someone else’s culture, but then to disregard those people whose culture you are taking from only continues to propagate a mindset of colonizing those who are different and perceived as “less than.” Loving Black and Brown people in all aspects helps the fight against cultural appropriation and racism. This is a fight against decentering Whiteness; elevating Black and Brown women and men directly destabilizes the world that we have created in which White is superior and all others are less than.
Cover image: Banga Studios / Via nimishabhanot.com
First image: http://www.teenvogue.com/story/mac-black-model-lips-instagram-racist-comments
Second image: http://rebloggy.com/post/comics-cultural-appropriation-bindi-minorities-south-asian-southeast-asian-flow/33241365590
Third image: http://feministculture.com/index.php/2015/11/17/why-cultural-appropriation-is-a-real-social-issue/
Fourth image: http://www.justjared.com/2015/05/04/rihannas-met-gala-2015-dress-has-the-longest-train-ever/