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.
“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>.
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/>.
“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/>.
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>.
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>.