Cultural Appropriation: Dangerous Intersections

In her article, âpihtawikosisân explains what cultural appropriation consists of, along with the apparent harms of appropriating the native headdress. Perhaps what is most interesting about cultural appropriation is how it often intersects with other systems of oppression (notably racism and sexism), and how it reinforces structural and systematic forms of oppression.

At its core, cultural appropriation is the act of taking intellectual property (this can be a physical object or not), stripping it of its meaning, and then assigning it a new meaning. These can be objects of both high and low cultural value, and it does not necessarily need to be the objects of marginalized groups. Although marginalized groups are harmed by appropriation the most as they tend to reinforce existing systems of power. Appropriation also typically occurs for either financial (selling native headdresses when you are not native to make money) or social (to seem “cool” or “edgy”) gain. Ultimately, cultural appropriation commodifies a cultural and suggests that it exists to be used for some sort of gain as opposed to a unifying sense of social cohesion through cultural identity.

In most acts of cultural appropriation, it is often seen as a subtle form of mockery. This act of appropriation often neglects the understanding of historical contexts, and more modern perceptions. The headdress is an excellent example as indigenous Plains people in Canada (and those in the United States) were forced to assimilate into the white colonial settler country. In Canada this was done through aggressive and brutal legislation that included the creation of Residential Schools whose ultimate goal was to “kill the Indian in the Child” (Fleras, 2015). These brutal policies included violent punishment for even speaking their languages. The culture of indigenous people of Canada was often seen as “barbaric” and had to be extinguished. The irony in white people and non-Native people of colour to wear a headdress not only out of its context – as it is similar to our own medals of honour – but also conveniently forgets the oppressive history of forced cultural assimilation. These histories have huge impacts on indigenous people today, and manifest themselves systematically. It is no secret that indigenous people have the highest death rates, lowest education rates, nearly dead languages, high rates of abuse, and much more as a result of these horrific policies (Fleras, 2015). Wearing the headdress is inherently a sign of mockery as it chooses to ignore this legacy.

It is also important to remember who benefits the most out of wearing these objects. While social gain is an important factor of cultural appropriation, the people who benefit the most are often those in positions of power. These types of power are often situated in privilege but those who benefit are not exclusively white, or CIS, or heterosexual – although they often are. Take Forever 21’s controversial “Straight out of Compton” t-shirts which appropriate black culture through commodification (Kleinman, 2015). Most of the residents of Compton are black, yet the models (and people who benefit) were clearly not. Forever 21, owned by Korean American Don Chang, does not necessarily directly benefit white, CIS, heterosexual men but it does reinforce existing power structures that work against people of colour – specifically black people (Forever 21, 2015). By commodifying their culture, Forever 21 suggests that they love black culture, but not necessarily black people. Black people become objectified in these type of anti-blackness. In this example of horizontal oppression – when one oppressed group works against another oppressed group to reinforce existing power structures – people like Chang may gain financial benefits (Social Justice Terminology, 2015). However, there are other people such as stockholders, workers, and other executive members of Forever 21 are likely to be white, cis, heterosexual men who will also benefit and benefit more from the oppression of people of colour than people like Chang.

The normalization of commodifying black culture implies that all cultures are also “free” to commodify. This has dire consequences as cultural appropriation can also reinforce existing stereotypes. For example, in Katy Perry’s orientalist “geisha” costume at the American Music Awards in 2013. Not only did her dress actually resemble more the Chinese cheongsam than Japanese kimono, but her entire performance and costume was only a step away from yellowface. While white women like Perry can take off a kimono and become white and “normal” again, Asian (specifically East Asian) women cannot. Instead, these images of the “exotic geisha” actively harm them. It fetishizes, objectifies, and dehumanizes them to sexual objects. This then plays a crucial role in sexual assault rates, where in which Asian women are targeted for specifically because of these images (Kim, 2009).This applies not only to Asian women, but to all women of colour. First Nations women are also sexualized, objectified, and reduced to a fetish often in an “exotic” sort of “savage” way with feathers and leather skins like in No Doubt’s music video (Charleyboy, 2012). It is not surprise to see that Aboriginal women in Canada and the United States have some of the highest rates of sexual assault. Cultural appropriation also creates a dangerous intersection of race and sex.

Cultural appropriation is very far from “appreciation”. These objects which were once seen as “foreign” and “strange” therefore qualified for mockery are now being used for financial or social gain. It is difficult for marginalized groups to forget the harsh, oppressive histories (whether recent or not). Appropriation also only benefits a small group of people, often people who are already in positions of power as they are typically CIS, white, male, heterosexual, are the ones who benefit from the commodification of culture (although not exclusively). It also often intersects sexism with racism, producing powerful stereotypes that have real world consequences.

Cornell West once said that “justice is what love looks like in public,”. Love is not mockery, or ignoring years of oppression. Love is not wearing objects of cultural significance out of ignorance. Love is not reinforcing harmful, intersecting forms of oppression. Love is respect and love is understanding.

Keep your headdresses and “geisha” costumes at home.

That is not love, nor does it do the people from those cultures any justice.

You may be able to take them off at the end of the day, but not everyone can.

Works Cited

“An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses.” Pihtawikosisn. 10 Feb. 2012. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

Charleyboy, Lisa. “No Doubt, Exploiting ‘hot’ Native American Stereotypes Is Never OK.” The Guardian. 6 Nov. 2012. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/nov/06/no-doubt-native-american-stereotypes&gt;.

Fleras, Augie, and Jean Leonard Elliot. “Aboriginal Peoples in Canada: Repairing the Relationship.” Unequal Relations: An Introduction to Race, Ethnic and Aboriginal Dynamics in Canada. 2nd ed. Scarborough, Ont.: Prentice Hall Canada ;, 1996. Print.

“Forever 21.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 1 Oct. 2014. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <http://www.forbes.com/companies/forever-21/&gt;.

“Hey, Can I Borrow That? – Why Cultural Appropriation Is Not Harmless.” Things Genny Loves. 19 Mar. 2014. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <https://nofrillsfox.wordpress.com/2014/03/19/hey-can-i-borrow-that-why-cultural-appropriation-is-not-harmless/&gt;.

Kim, Jaemin. “Asian Women: Rape And Hate Crimes.” The Huffington Post. 3 June 2009. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jaemin-kim/lets-call-it-what-it-is_b_163698.html&gt;.

Kleinman, Alexis. “Forever 21 Apparently Has Pulled Its Controversial Compton Shirts.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 25 Sept. 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

“Social Justice Terminology.” Suffolk University. Suffolk University. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <http://www.suffolk.edu/campuslife/27883.php&gt;.

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6 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation: Dangerous Intersections

  1. aba

    Hey Jac, AWESOME review! I really like how you approached the topic in so many different ways ie. the way cultural appropriation affects so many diverse groups of people, and how it intersects with other social conflicts, such as the mistreatment and violence towards indigenous people. Also, your section on Forever 21 made me think, since I am definitely among the many consumers purchasing items from their shops. It makes me wonder… Are we, as people expressing ourselves through fashion, being mindful enough of what we are buying, advertising and representing with our own personal fashion statements?

    And another quick question: What would you define to be the fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation??

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    1. Jac Post author

      Hi Aba, thanks for your response!

      I think that there is a certain element of realism that we need to add into our consumption of products. I mean, it’s a difficult line to draw when you have a limited budget and companies like Forever 21 have very cheap clothing. Obviously you don’t want to support a company that openly exploits people (often these run off sweatshop labour as well) but you also can’t actually afford clothing that’s free/fair trade, and it’s difficult to determine which companies aren’t problematic in other ways (American Apparel which is known for being sweatshop free being an example of being very misogynistic). I’d say that actively don’t purchase appropriated items, be vocal on social media and in person when companies do try to sell appropriated items, and try to purchase authentic items made by the actual people from that culture (i.e moccasins from indigenous people).

      In terms of what is appreciation and appropriation, appreciation can be active or passive. In active forms you are invited to the culture. For example, you can go to powwows that are open to non-First Nations people. They’re real, they exist, and they’re a way to appreciate the culture without appropriating it. You can also participate passively by doing things like just sharing a photo of the clothing on social media. I think there’s a sense of entitlement to marginalized group’s cultures — especially those who are still trying to decolonize — which might stem from a legacy of colonialism which essentially was entitlement to land, POC’s bodies, etc.

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  2. Ash

    I’m truly impressed by the work you’ve done here, Jac!! Not only did you beautifully explain the dangers of appropriating Indigenous culture, but you also took it a step further by drawing upon other examples in pop culture. Whenever I consider the effects of cultural appropriation, I always think about how it exclusively reinforces white heteropatriarchy, however your definition of horizontal oppression gave me a different perspective. Marginalized individuals such as Chang can directly and indirectly contribute to existing power imbalances, which leads me to consider my own positionality within society. In what other ways do you believe horizontal oppression exists?

    Before taking this class, I was definitely a passive consumer and probably wouldn’t have even noticed the appropriation when viewing Forever 21’s “straight out of Compton” line or watching a Katy Perry performance. I love how you emphasized and explained how being aware of the unique, oppressive histories marginalized groups is especially important when considering the damaging effects of cultural appropriation. Do you believe educating the public about oppressive histories is enough to end cultural appropriation?

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    1. Jac Post author

      Hi Ash, thank you so much for your kind response!

      Horizontal oppression can exist in all forms. Most discourse about horizontal oppression usually refers to those both in positions of oppression. For example, straight Asians saying homophobic things about queer black people is not horizontal oppression because straight Asians still have privileges from being straight, and in that case wouldn’t be horizontal oppression. Asian American communities (and Asian communities in general) have long histories of anti-blackness which is a form of horizontal oppression. It’s usually based on reinforcing existing power structures. For example, if an Asian American was to say the an anti-black slur, it would reinforce white supremacy since those terms are deeply rooted in the dehumanization of black bodies. White supremacy in no way, shape, or form, benefits Asians. It also dehumanizes and objectifies them. This obviously applies in other contexts as well, such as a if a gay man said harmful or generalized things about lesbians (ex: all lesbians are d*kes). In this case, a gay man might perpetuate homophobic ideas, even if they aren’t necessarily against him.

      I don’t think that education of oppressive histories is enough. I think we also need to make the connection on how this continues to harm people today. Wearing the First Nations headdress is hurtful because of the history, but more importantly because that history has an active role in harming First Nations people today. They cannot exist without the legacy of colonialism. The same can be said for Perry’s “kimono” and the “Straight out of Compton” t-shirts. They play an integral role in how we see indigenous bodies, East Asian bodies, and black bodies, and how we may assume a sense of entitlement over their cultures/bodies. Obviously this sense of entitlement is dehumanizing, objectifying, and will ultimately lead to violence since we begin to see them as “less than human”.

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  3. rau

    Hey Jac, excellent review!
    Something that really stood out to me was your statement saying “they love black culture but not black people”, when talking about Forever 21’s certain clothing line. This statement stood out to me because I had never really thought of cultural appropriation this way before, and because these words can be applied to any/all forms of cultural appropriation. I think that, often, when people appropriate a culture (for example Katy Perry in the performance that you have shown above) it is because they want to show support for the culture. This is obviously not true in all cases, but I believe it to be true in several.
    However, for those who are trying to include more than one culture, I think they neglect to consider the offence that could be taken by others. Instead of making these cultures feel supported, they are actually doing the opposite. What are your thoughts? Do you think that the intentions of the people appropriating these culture could possibly be positive?

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    1. Jac Post author

      Hey Rau, thanks so much for your awesome response!

      I definitely agree with your analysis of that statement! Most examples of cultural appropriation require that we disassociate the culture from the people, which definitely implies that we love the culture but not the people.

      I think we have a very convoluted idea of what is respectful because we don’t know about these cultures. I mean obviously the Forever 21 example is a way to gain money, but even when people do it out of “respect” they tend to do poor research. I think the media, which often reinforces certain images, plays a key role in this, but in the internet age it’s not hard to Google and read a few articles about whatever object you want to wear/use. There’s nothing wrong with doing it properly, and there’s nothing wrong with wearing clothes/doing activities with these people from that culture. If anything, that actually enhances your experience.

      I also think that kind of shifts the blame or responsibility of ensuring that appropriation doesn’t occur onto already marginalized groups. As if they are expected to explain these things to people, as opposed to people (white or not) to simply go online and looking up the information (which is readily available). It sort of suggests to me that POC are obligated to inform people about their cultures, which are being appropriated in harmful ways, rather than people thinking twice about what they purchase/use and using google. I see it kind of like, double checking reviews. If you found a site online that had very cheap, nice clothing, you’d want to check reviews to make sure it’s legitimate before buying it. I view cultural appropriation in the same way. Obviously you can disagree with me on this part, it’s a bit of a harsher view on cultural appropriation.

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