Monday, 20 June 2011

On Cultural Appropriation

English sailor, ca. 1900, photographed by F. Urakawa, in Ethnic Photographs of the Nineteenth Century

I happened to come across the style aspect of cultural appropriation recently. Sandra, a Finnish fashion blogger living in London, wore a Native American head dress to a photo shoot and got some very aggressive feedback about it. Wanting to know more about the beef people had with her, I visited several blogs (see end of post for links) discussing the question of cultural appropriation. I got to thinking about whether I am just a burglar, breaking into the house of sacred beliefs and cultural history by occasionally wearing dream catcher earrings, a kimono jacket or a Saami witch drum pendant. It seems that according to many, I am a lowlife ignorant hipster trying to act cool at the expense of minorities. I mock people who have faced genocide, and I deeply offend the representatives of "real" traditions that go deeper than the blank canvases of white sad-excuses-for cultures. According to some, as a white privileged female, I actively participate in imperialism by wearing moccasins, prints inspired by ethnic designs, or by hanging onto my said dream catcher earrings. Thank goodness I don't have henna tattoos on my body, or I'd really be nailed to the wall.

This whole issue reminded me of a Finnish ice dancing duo, who decided to wear ice skating interpretations of native Lapp costumes in one of their performances in the mid 1990s. The majority of Finns were thrilled (how original, how pretty!), the Saami minority appalled. To this day, every time I see a "neljän tuulen hattu" ("the hat of four winds", as worn by the male ice skater Petri Kokko above) in a trendy Helsinki thrift store, I think of the ice dancers and their good intentions, and the handful of Saami minorities who got upset.

Picture taken from here

I guess it is obvious that some things should be left alone; I can feel it in my bones that the picture above is probably offensive to many Native Americans. But when it comes to wearing culturally specific jewelry or clothing as style statements (when we do so without sitting our legs crossed in front of a mock teepee), where are we supposed to draw the line? Who owns the rights to traditional prints or symbols? In our multi-layered, troubled and troubling multi-identity-filled melting pot of a world, can we even talk of cultures belonging to their representatives anymore? Isn't mixing of cultures in the heart of mankind? Haven't we always done it? Is it even possible to wear anything without making direct, sometimes uninformative references to (or stealing from) some culture or another? Are kimonos off limits? What about Ikat prints, China red, Celtic symbols, Navajo jewelry, the star of David, Peruvian blankets or Turkish evil eye pendants? What about saris, or Thai fisherman's pants? Does silk belong to the Chinese? Is "Egyptian revival" costume jewelry offensive? Which Native American tribe has the right to make or wear dream catchers (they were originally made by the Chippewa, but were later adopted by the Sioux and the Navajo)? What about sub-cultural appropriation? Should someone like Donald Trump not wear jeans or a Sex Pistols t-shirt?

"Indian chiefs who counciled with General Miles and settled the Indian War", 1891, in Michael Lesy: Bearing Witness - A Photographic Chronicle of American Life, 1860-1945

Personally, I would not wear a Native American head dress as a fashion statement, even if I felt drawn to them for whatever reason or another. I wouldn't feel comfortable wearing one because I've read about a warrior's need to earn the right to wear one; the cultural context of a head dress would weigh way too heavy on my shoulders. I've also seen too many fashion magazine editorials where a white model wears some culturally specific gear in a purely eroticized manner, or poses next to indigenous people of colour in an "exotic" location. That type of stuff just makes me feel uncomfortable. (The issue falls in line with the Westward-Ho!-cowgirl rhetoric in American Vogue earlier this year, which I posted about at the time.) When historically and culturally sensitive issues are portrayed as being cool, trendy and disposable, yes, I have a problem with that. But if this means that I can't wear my dream catcher earrings without someone labeling me as a trend-driven, mindless, exploitative imperialist just because I happen to be white, I have a problem with that, too.

Vogue Italia, photo by Steven Meisel

A blogger's guide to avoiding cultural appropriation in style issues claims that if you are drawn to culturally specific items for aesthetic reasons, you should not wear them. Just by definition, this is a little troublesome; aesthetic pleasure is inherent in the way people all over the world have always dressed. That, of course, is not to say that whatever spiritual meanings might be associated with the items in question are trumped by their physical appearance - I, for one, like the look of dream catchers, but their origin and meaning only make their beauty more interesting and inspiring. Do I have the right to wear dream catchers, then? What if I had no clue about the meaning of dream catchers? To the latter question, the blog posts I consulted say absolutely no, obviously. Wearing culturally specific, sometimes sacred items can be insulting and hurtful if the wearer is not aware of the meanings attached to the symbol by others. (Think of a crucifix worn as a fashion statement by someone who doesn't know who Jesus is, in an environment where Christians are a suppressed minority.) But when it comes to the first question, the bloggers seem to think that as long as you know the cultural and spiritual significance of the item you are wearing, you are not automatically doing something wrong, but - and this is a major curve ball- if a representative of that culture calls you out on your choice, you have no right to defend yourself. If they say you are diluting their traditions, there is nothing you can do. If they say that you are practicing imperialism, regardless of your origin, their word is what goes. I don't know about you, but I have a serious problem with someone, anyone, telling me what I can or cannot wear.

On the one hand, diluting the meaning of cultural iconography is, of course, awful from the standpoint of tradition and cultural conservation. Being a representative of a nation whose own indigenous cultural traditions were wiped out in the Northern Crusades and only live in one awkward chapter in the comprehensive school's history book, I get it. But on the other hand, cultures and cultural symbolism are living and breathing entities, and they are known to have their ebbs and flows everywhere. The fact is that cultures mix and overlap. They have always done so, often at the expense of spiritual traditions and "purity". Cultures don't exist in a vacuum, they never have. And the unfortunate fact is that some cultures die, too. The indigenous culture of the Finns is long gone, dead, buried. What remains is an awkward collection of folk stories bound in a national epic, and a handful of de-spiritualized traditions like the sauna. The Finns' ancient god of the water and fishing, Ahti, is now a brand of pickled herring on the shelves of the supermarket, dressed in Poseidon's costume. That's the way it goes. But of course, this does not mean that we should consciously try to destroy whatever symbols of threatened cultures are still out there, and the cultural appropriation bloggers feel that that is exactly what the Western world (I use the term loosely here) is doing.

When we are talking about cultural appropriation within the framework of style, clearly the role of fashion and multinational clothing retailers is huge. It is pretty obvious that companies have no interest in securing traditional understandings of potentially sacred symbols or culturally specific pieces of clothing. They, of course, are only out there to make money as quickly as possible. Fashion is notorious for this-that-and-the-other-culture-inspired fancy collections that then get reproduced cheaply by mass-market manufacturers, only to be forgotten when the next season arrives. It might have been Ikat prints last year, Navajo the next. The cultural or in some cases spiritual connections are lost. For most consumers, they are nothing but cool prints. As if that wasn't bad enough, these types of fashions are often portrayed in a horrible way. Like I wrote earlier, fashion magazines continuously set their editorial photo shoots in "exotic" locations. What we often see is a pretty white girl in a Versace jacket next to a child who doesn't have shoes. Some magazines are worse than others - sometimes reading British Vogue is like taking part in a one-on-one lesson in Orientalism.

Vogue UK, photos by Mario Testino

An often-heard argument for fashion/style-related cultural appropriation is that what looks like appropriation is actually appreciation: that whoever chooses to wear a culturally specific piece of clothing is actually doing a favour for the culture in question, out of respect, or that portrayal of indigenous cultures in desirable settings can also create awareness for cultures and their symbols, prints and pieces of clothing that might otherwise be lost eventually. The cultural appropriation bloggers would be horrified to even suggest anything of the sort, and I agree with them completely. Labeling indigenous cultures "exotic", "exciting" or "erotic" and portraying them in the light of superficial consumerism is demeaning, no matter what the intentions might be. But I do wonder whether there might be at least a handful of teenagers wondering where the design of their cool new H&M feather earrings comes from, and if so, perhaps one of that handful will go online to look for information on feather use in jewelry. Perhaps they might buy their next pair of earrings from a Native, and perhaps they might educate their friends on the importance of supporting handcrafted Native pieces rather than getting a quick fix at the high street. But I guess that's just wishful thinking.

In the end it comes down to personal decision making, and the role of the consumer. It is unlikely that any free, thinking individual is going to let a stranger (regardless of what his or her cultural heritage might be) dictate what he or she can wear - in this sense, the cultural appropriation bloggers are the ones who engage in wishful thinking. It is individuals who eventually make the final decision as to what they want to wear and what they feel comfortable with. It is us who create meanings to our style choices: we pick, choose and wear our clothes to show the world who we (think we) are. Whether it is choosing eco-friendly materials or recycled clothing, whether it is all bought at H&M on the cheap, whether we are aware of the cultural references behind our clothes or not, choosing what to wear can be a pretty tricky enterprise. A lot of people in the Western world don't care about anything but looking cool, but others feel the need to make their clothing choices emotionally meaningful: we might wear our parents' old clothes or jewelry, for example, or religious symbols, or styles typical of where we are from. Our clothing choices can also represent a spiritual quest, an attempt to show that we are looking for ourselves. I am sure that these polar opposites exist in all cultures.

But there is one more question I haven't asked: why are we "Westerners" drawn to culturally specific and indigenous fabrics, jewelry and pieces of clothing? It is just because we are greedy thieves and imperialists? Or are we looking for beauty? Is it only human to be attracted to something that is different from what we know? Or perhaps our quest for indigenous cultures and their spiritual symbols and fabrics is telling of the lack of meaning and spirituality in the lives of many Westerners today. What many cultural appropriation critics see as "one destructive, white, void Western world" carries with itself a tragic, torn history of many complex, destroyed or disappeared cultural heritages that we, as citizens of the world, sorely miss.

So, any thoughts?

My Culture is Not a Trend (blog about cultural appropriation)
Oi With the Poodles Already (posts tagged "cultural appropriation")
The most abrasive bitch of them all (post about hipsters wearing head dresses)
The Sadness of Pencils (post about cultural appropriation)


Gracey said...

Wow. First, I want to say I'm so glad you're home. Second, I think you're brilliant and your writing is amazing. Finally, about this post...

This is a strange one for me because I purposely avoid what are often considered "ethnic" or "exotic" prints. I have a few pairs of feather earrings, but none that look as if they could be recreations of something worn by any group of indigenous people. I am not comfortable in ethnic prints or accessories because I don't like drawing that sort of attention to myself. With my coloring and mixed race background it just causes more questions as people try to decide if they should be offended or not when I wear a kente cloth sash.

Also, I have to say that if I know (and I don't always) the meaning behind a cultural icon and it's something more than just aesthetic, I would never try to incorporate it into my wardrobe. For example, I don't think you should wear a Star of David if you're not Jewish. It's a sacred symbol for them and for anyone to just throw on one like they're throwing on some hoop earrings seems wrong to me. But, I don't know where that conviction came from.

Let me stop now. I'm not sure I'm making any sense, but I really did love this post.

Anonymous said...

I was fairly confused when I first stumbled across a discussion of this at ThreadBared and just as you have done I tried to read up on it. I am troubled by the appropriation of head-dresses because these are earned, sacred objects...and the knock-offs in fast fashion stores not only perpetuate a stereotype about Native Americans, but is blissfully they pose for drunken pictures to post on Facebook.

I found your example of the crucifix to be especially interesting. Culturally and by personal belief I am a Christian, but I am troubled by people who wear crosses around their necks. This is because I believe rather than announcing one's faith via a piece of jewelry, it ought to be obvious in one's behavior. The jewelry/cross is not a shortcut.

Shey said...

This post was amazing Waves, I don't know how I feel about the matter, to be honest I'm in between. I don't know wnything about the meaning behind those headpieces worn by the girl, I don't know their significance but some of the readers were like "oh that's a cool head piece I want it" another disposable item and I don't even think that they knew (like I don't either) the significance of the head piece. If it's something special maybe used in a special ceremony I would feel bad if it was just worn and then tossed like trash. On the other hand I think the girl looked beautiful in the headpiece and her intention was not to offend anyone but to show the beauty of it. On Reading Night at my school 2 teachers dressed up as Frida Kahlo, let me rephrase that, 2 white teachers, they looked beautiful and I felt good that they knew who Frida was and her work of Art. I do get annoyed when people in the US "celebrate" 5 de mayo, because most don't know why it's celebrated, it's just an excuse to drink and that's not the reason 5 de mayo is celebrated in Mexico. In fact there's not even a big fiesta like there is here during that date, but honestly on that day I feel kind of proud that I can share with people the reason behind 5 de mayo, and people like to listen.
One last thought, you mentioned the photoshoots of models with "exotic" people, oh my goodnes that makes me so mas too, but especially the tourist who visit indigenous towns in Mexico who just take pictures of people without asking them whether they want to be photographed, one friend told me how "rude" the people were because they threw rocks at them just because they wanted to take their picture! I mean, who wouldn't! These are people not animals or toys to do as we please with them. I'm sure if a stranger tried to take a picture of her without asking she'd be mad too.
You look beautiful, the necklaces are very pretty, I love yellow during the summer. You look great in sleeveless tops. =)

Shey said...

For example, I don't think you should wear a Star of David if you're not Jewish. It's a sacred symbol for them and for anyone to just throw on one like they're throwing on some hoop earrings seems wrong to me.<------ I totally agree with this comment from Gracey. This is what I was trying to say earlier but sometimes I don't make any sense hehe. I also agree with the second comment from Terri.

I'm looking foward to reading more of the comments you get, this is a very interesting topic.

vesperbeauty said...

Great post, and everytime I had a thought while reading it, you wrote that thought later on :)

I read quite a bit on the cultural appropriate links that you posted. I'm disappointed that they seem to be 100% black and white about wearing cultural items, inspired or not. It's much more nuanced than that.

Funnily enough, I recently saw several Indian (I'll use that as a catch-all) women in traditional sari dresses at the grocery store. The dresses were stunningly beautiful, and I simultaneously wanted to wear one and knew in my bones that would be insulting. Years ago I owned a red silk skirt that had a sari-style gold stitching along the bottom hem. It was clearly not a direct rip-off but a diluted reference to the style. I would not have been embarrassed to wear that skirt in a group of Indians. There's a lot of gray in them there hills.

The part that bothered me the most about those blogs is the rhetoric that accuses white people's ancestors of being imperialistic pigs. ( That's ridiculous and just as racist. Excuse me, but my white ancestors were in France and Switzerland until the early 1900s. Just because I'm a white American doesn't mean my ancestors killed Natives. *eye roll*

Bottom line, to me, it's all about context - what's a costumed stereotype and what's an "homage" to the style. Head-to-toe dress, especially uninformed mish-mashes of what the wearer thinks is the culture, is offensive. But a leather-and-turquoise bracelet doesn't register as insulting - it's a style, not a stereotype. Plus, I'm with you on people not telling me how to dress, thank you very much.

The Waves said...

I wanted to add one more link:

Adrienne K's posts are well argued and thought-provoking. Hope you check it out!

Carolyn said...

Wow, this is an incredibly thought provoking post. I have come across this cultural appropriation stuff before, and my view is that it is, well, an over-reaction. One might argue that native Americans are inappropriately wearing bird's feathers, and that the birds have more right to wear them than any human.
And I agree, the racist aspect of the whole cultural appropriation saga is very troubling. Aren't we all just human beings for heaven's sakes? To announce that a whole group of people are not allowed to wear something just because of the colour of their skin, or the country they were born in is just another example of racism in my opinion...
Having said that though I probably wouldn't wear a native American headpiece since I'm a conflict-avoider, and wouldn't want to offend anyone :D

Terri's and your comments about the crucifix were interesting (as I am Christian too) I don't have a problem with other people wearing them if they want to, but there are some Christian groups who liken them to wearing an electric chair, or a hangman's noose...

lin said...

Great post (I had to read it several times to really fully form a response to it). I had a Chinese teacher who regularly wore salwar kameezs as part of her wardrobe, and I'd always wondered how it made the Punjab teachers in my school feel (I'm from Singapore, it's pretty multicultural, even though it's 75% Chinese).

I wouldn't wear anything I don't know the cultural significance of, and especially not anything with religious iconography. Something like a native American headdress is definitely off limits. On the other hand, I could wear something with a Indonesian ikat weave, for instance, because they are within their culture, decorative, and I see no wrong in adopting them for the same purpose, and I enjoy the work of designers who can respectfully pay homage to this.

I'm certainly drawn to the aesthetics or the look of certain things that also have cultural significance, but it's precisely because we live in such an increasingly connected world that I would be extra careful about whether I am potentially offensive in doing so - because a melting pot world calls for greater tolerance. I agree that in most situations you can't really tell another person what not to wear, but he or she better be able to back up their "look" with a good reason for wearing it other than "it looks good".

poet said...

Great post. I struggle with the topic too. As you say, when high fashion appropriates non-Western cultures it's certainly not okay. For the individual, it depends on a ton of factors and I too find it hard to draw the line. I've been to Cambodia, spent my whole stay exploring the temples of Angkor and learning about their history - and I've bought clothes there that aren't traditional but look vaguely Southeast-Asian (their fabric, cut and embroidery). I believe it's okay if I wear those because I've actually been there, interacted with people there, and cared about their cultural history, I'm not totally ignorant about them or judging them by a cliché. On the other hand, I was gifted a sari by two friends who are Vietnamese-French and Taiwanese-German respectively; none of us has been to India, so none of us has a true connection to the cultural meaning of the sari, and I don't feel I have a right to wear it. I think one of the reasons for Westerners being drawn to items deemed "exotic" or "ethnic" is that we believe members of other cultures still have the authenticity, the connection to their spiritual and cultural roots that has been lost for most of us. We want that too, and maybe we want to shed some of the guilt that being the mostly oppressive majority brings with it?

Ginta said...

It’s interesting and hard subject. I can’t talk about Native American head pieces. But I can say that I felt offended when I saw singers from country who occupied us 70 years ago wear our costumes, sing songs in their language and mock our national dances. I was angry! (Us being Latvia, they – Russia) But I know if it’d be done by any other nationality it wouldn’t have hurt me so much. Just the feeling that the occupants have derided us once more was awful! So, in a way I can understand Native Americans.

I also agree with previous comments – I wouldn’t wear crusifics, it’s not jewelry. (I was raised Catholic.) The same goes about Star of David. I’d also be careful about any nation garment or symbol I don’t know the meaning for.

Teeny said...

Here is a thought, I can imagine a New Zealand teenager girl following trend and wearing headdress and feathers...but no way would they wear traditional Maori (NZ's indigenous people) costume on the street. The fashion industry, or popular media (i don't know which or both) has somehow shared their images and views so blatently over such a long time.... that everyday people are behaving like they themselves OWN Native American cultural dress rights. I applaud those people who are talking about Cultural appropriation and how it is disrespectful. I personally believe that there is a line...and I agree with Vesperbeauty and what she said about context, stereotyping and homage.

Carolyn said...

Hi. Sorry, I realise this is my second comment, but I went over and checked out the links you posted and I've had a change of heart. Whilst some of those bloggers are seriously angry people, so angry they seem to be spouting anger without reason... I guess I was initially coming at this from the perspective of an outsider, who didn't know how the state of things was like in the USA, and I can see that posting erotic images of semi-naked girls in native American headdress would be very very offensive. Over here we are not exposed to that kind of blasphemy against their culture and its beliefs, but I understand the anger better now.
I think my viewpoint has changed, and was worded really well by lin above, who wrote that if something is used decoratively within a culture, then it is OK to be worn or used decoratively by others too. So obviously a native American headdress would be out, but a decoratively beaded headband would possibly be OK . When we were travelling through the US I bought silver and turquoise jewellery from native American jewellers, and since it was sold to me quite willingly I assume it is quite acceptable for a foreigner like me to wear them!!
Thank you so much for this great post, you have really created some great food for thought in a considered and intelligent post.

Katarzyna said...

Your post impressed me so much that I needed to go to bed with it and re-think it in the morning. Cultural appropriation seems a very serious issue, but as with any extreme (or extreme-ish) movements, there is a problem with this one too.

The first problem is, I guess, simpler. The cultural appropriation seems to be all about offending feelings, whether they be religious or national. There is a question then: can you really offend *feelings*? or can you just offend *a person*? One cannot harm an ancient culture by wearing dream catcher earrings or by wearing a cross necklace when one is not a Catholic. I read some of the posts in the links sent by you and kept on wondering: is it really caring about the cultures and religions or is it caring about a particular person's purely egotic well-being? To be brutal (but it's only because other words elude me), if someone thinks that Sandra is offending them, it is, well, their problem, not Sandra's. How is that in any manner her issue that a hundred years ago native Americans weren't granted American citizenship? How is that at all her fault that thousands and thousands of American Indians were murdered? However horrifying and appalling one may find this history, the fact that she will take off her headdress will not change it. Her knowledge and sensitivity may be an issue, but the response to her image seems so inadequate that it's reaching the point of being ridiculous.

The second problem seems more complicated, and I would call it "the death of symbols". Let me explain. Culture and religion are not just about things. They are mostly about spiritual experience. The things that accompany the experience are just things; items we use to help us make the whole experience and our feelings visible. They do not carry meaning with them; they have as much meaning as we put into them, they are not of any objective value. Yet some weird shift happened and the religious meaning was moved from the spiritual to the physical. People started to believe that - so to say - the crucifux is God itself, just as if it didn't exist apart from the cross and outside it. People stopped seeing culture and religion *outside* things. Therefore an abuse to the crucifix is an abuse towards God. And something in me raises eyebrows and asks: is it really? If someone burns the Bible on a deathmetal concert, does it make the God less powerful? or does it only prove the weakness, helplessness and uncertainty of the believers?

As Vesperbeauty said, it's the black-and-white-ness of the issue that's absolutely inappropriate. You cannot fight stupid and ignorant people by being yourself stupid and ignorant and violent.


The Waves said...

Thanks so much, everyone, for writing such insightful comments!

I've kept thinking about the issue and have come to the conclusion (just like many of you) that religious symbols certainly should be left alone, but the problem with that is that a lot of people (including myself) are simply not familiar with, say, all religious symbols of Native Americans (or other indigenous cultures all over the world). What counts as "religious" is another issue, and the dream catcher is a great example: it is certainly a spiritual item, but since they are often manufactured by Native Americans for non-Natives, then the line becomes very blurry indeed. The same goes with weaving patterns that might actually have significant spiritual meaning, and we just don't know. It goes without saying that whenever possible, we should put some time and effort into doing research and informing ourselves of what might be acceptable and what not.

I agree with Vesperbeauty that a lot of times it is all about the context. It seems that a lot of cultural appropriation bloggers are particularly insulted when they see hipsters wearing full-on Native gear and getting drunk and posting pictures of themselves at frat parties half-naked wearing a head dress. That is simply unacceptable. I am not a nationalist by any stretch of the imagination, but I'd be insulted if I saw someone wearing the Finnish national costume, crawling on the floor in their own vomit. Everyone should be able to use their common sense in those types of situations and just not do it.

Katya raised some interesting questions about whether a culture can actually be affected by cultural appropriation. The bloggers I consulted seemed to argue that allowing sacred symbols to be treated in a commercial, superficial manner simply sets out a bad example, and with time, diminishes the integrity and the common perception of the symbols and the culture in question. And where it might not directly affect the culture itself or anyone's spirituality, it distorts the outsiders' conceptions of those cultures and those symbols, and thus dilutes the general understanding of that culture. The more people see hipsters wearing head dresses, the more people might just be misinformed about the significance of the head dress. And where that doesn't automatically destroy the head dress as a powerful, spiritual symbol, but it sure makes you wonder why your religion/ethnic origin/what have you, is being mocked openly, which might in time force you to buy into those reinforced misconceptions and misunderstandings of your own culture; you know, the types of 1/16th Native Americans who have been alienated from tradition, who think they have the right to wear a head dress.

One more thing I find interesting is what some of you touched upon: how the cultural appropriation bloggers put all whites in the same category of imperialists. The argument goes that even if our ancestors had nothing to do with colonization of indigenous lands, we are the ones who have benefited from oppression. I think this argument shows a profound lack of knowledge of European history. To claim that a white person from, say, Poland, has benefited from the near-genocide of the Native Americans really needs to check up on their level of general knowledge...

But sheesh, this is one interesting topic, and I for one can say that I am reading this season's fashion magazines and their editorials on "tribal chic" a little differently..!

Camelia Crinoline said...

This was really interesting. I read it yesterday, as well as all the links, but it took me some time to get my thoughts in order and I'm still not sure where I stand. I do have a massive problem with the fashion industry's exoticisation of culture. I am also astounded by the white privilege shown by many people who think it's all an overreaction. It does not matter that your ancestors were not directly involved in the oppression of Native Americans or any other culture, as a white person (as I am) you benefit from racial oppression. I think some people could benefit from reading Peggy McIntosh's list of the daily effects of white privilege.

As a New Zealander, I found Teeny's point interesting. I agree, but I do think in New Zealand there is a definite blurring of the line. Many non-Maori wear Pounamu (greenstone) pendants which are a part of Maori culture. The traditional koru pattern is used on many different things. It is even used as the logo for our national airline. Being non-Maori, I am not sure if this is offensive or not.
I think context is important. Pounamu are, from what I gather, traditionally given as gifts on significant occasions. They have mana. I do think if non-Maori want to wear then that this should be respected.
Hipsters wearing headresses is offensive because they show a complete lack of respect for Native American culture. I am sure most of them are completely unaware of the cultural significance and have no wish to learn about it.
Sorry if this is nonsensical.

Camelia Crinoline said...

Sorry The Waves, that comment about white privilege was not directed at you but I realise it might have been read like that. It was more a general observation from some of the comments that I have read.

The Waves said...

Camelia Crinoline: Thank you for your thought-provoking comment! I agree that Peggy McIntosh's list is absolutely required reading. I guess the only thing I would add is that what escapes cultural appropriation bloggers is that culture isn't necessarily the same as race, although the two are often linked. (I agree that it is sometimes tough to talk about one without talking about the other.)

McIntosh is absolutely right when she says that white people don't identify with their race because it is a non-issue for them. (It is easy to reject the idea of racism when you don't encounter any.) I, for one, am a walking example of someone who has a really tough time identifying myself as "white" - hence the trouble I have with people labeling me a white imperialist without culture. Actually, I may just have trouble with labels altogether. A term like imperialist (which is a derogatory word these days) makes void all aspects of my personal identity, my personal decisions, my values, my beliefs just like the catch-all terms like race, gender, or nationality often do. Culture, however, seems more fluid. Perhaps that is why we feel like it is okay to appropriate someone's culture, but not someone's race, even if the two may be the flip sides of the same coin. Okay, I am confusing even myself here. :)

The Waves said...

I also just wanted to clarify my point about cultural appropriation bloggers who might need a lesson in European history: when it comes to the old continent, so many identity markers override the question of race in certain times and places (perhaps by definition, this falls in place with a certain level of white privilege? I don't know.) However, we must be able to discuss the markers that have had historical importance in the oppression of some people in the European context: say, ethnicity (which is not the same as race), political views, gender, language or sexual orientation. Just because one is white it does not automatically put them in a position of power, which the term imperialist suggests. I guess what I am trying to say is that all this stuff is very, very complex!

jesse.anne.o said...

I'm late to this but I went back and pulled up the post I did about this previously {} and I don't think much has changed in my thinking.

Like a lot of folks here, I tried to differentiate between what was used for everyday wear/decoration and what had a very specific cultural significance to create some balance.

Rad in BK said...

I try to be both sensitive to symbols that are seen as sacred, and to be post-structuralist about what "culture" is. I am always suspicious about people who police cultural boundaries (usually, it's men with power in a particularly group, who want to remain in power), but I am also easily annoyed by individuals (white or otherwise) who act like history doesn't exist. I went to the University of Illinois for my undergraduate studies, and Illinois is a place where there are almost no indigenous Americans. Yet our "mascot" was a "Chief." And it was always a white American young man, wearing something out of Buffalo Bill and the Indians (something very Southwest, not Midwest) doing embarrassingly stereotypical tomahawk chops and the like. People claimed in defense of this anachronism that we were "honoring Illinois' native American heritage," yet the University did nothing to recruit and retain Native American students and professors, and did not have a Native American studies program or major. Local and national Native American/American Indian Movement leaders and organizations had been condemning this as an offensive practice for decades, yet their views didn't matter. So as a result, I developed a zero tolerance policy to anyone who defended the "Chief." (As you can imagine, "head dresses" and the like were sold for sporting events). All the attempts to discuss "tradition" and "honor" were beyond offensive. (My favorite defense was "I am part Native American, so it can't be racist.") I know this is a bit off the from the discussion on bloggers, but my point is that if you are possibly engaging in cultural appropriation, you should be aware of the oppression and history of the groups whose symbols that you using. I don't think all the Chief fans were racist oppressors, but they were thoughtless and offensive. They were reproducing racist and colonialist narratives in their carefree embrace of a sports symbol.
Finally, as an Asian American who sees a lot of people of all backgrounds wear "Asian" things when it gets trendy, I don't get offended, I just laugh a bit. Sometimes, in a multi-culti society, your difference can be a source of ridicule and isolation, and other times, people fawn all over one's "exoticness."

j.lowe said...

I found my way here from Already Pretty's blog. This is a really great post! I have been thinking about this too, but in regards to exotic practices. For example, I recently visited a meditation center that claimed a Buddhist tradition. However, I was struck that 99% of the people in the room were white. I was one of the only Chinese people in the room, and I really felt a bit sardonic. From the clean carpets to the zen/asian decorations, I just felt as if a bunch of white hippies were trying to be trendy/hipster. I knew they intended well - heck, I know they know more than I do about Buddhist practices! But I felt that something was missing, something was different about the way these buddhists were carrying on and the buddha statutes I see in my relatives' houses.

I think what was missing, and goes missing in much of the cultural appropriation that takes place in the U.S., is a kind of lived context or history. It's fully possible to become a consumer of appropriated exotic goods without ever coming in contact with the original cultural source, without ever participating or even observing how these practices or goods are enacted in real life. The opportunities that do exist for participation tend to be a part of the tourist economy and not much more authentic. I don't think we'll ever really get away from this kind of cultural transplantation or dilution if you will - this is the U.S., and almost nothing here is originally from here. Everything here is a crazy melding of other cultures, and trying to divide where one culture ends and another begins is very challenging.

I think the best case scenario would be if things weren't so mass-produced - if the manufacture of things could be traced back at a more local, cultural roots/heritage. If the only way to buy a dreamcatcher earring is to go to a reservation and make one yourself along with the people there. Something like that. Since that's probably not going to happen any time soon, then I guess the next best thing is try to appreciate the context or history of items/practices from any exotic/minority group.

Stephanie said...

I can really relate to this-- a lot of times I am drawn to clothing items that are not necessary from my culture per se, for example embroidered Chinese silk shirts (kind of like ) and other Asian-style items, but wouldn't necessarily feel comfortable wearing them regularly because it's seen as outside of my ethnicity.
Sometimes I even feel like the “trendy-ness” of certain items can make me feel alientated from my own culture. For example, once I received a multi-layer, "punk-style" cross necklace (7 crosses!) that was detailed with a few small rhinestones. On one hand, I'd grown up Catholic my entire life, it was a gorgeous necklace, and it matched the feminine-yet-somewhat-edgy style I'd been trying to emulate at the time. However, I rarely wore it, and the few times I did I felt really self-conscious. Something about using a religious symbol as such an obvious fashion accessory just didn't seem right to me. A small cross necklace (often worn UNDER clothing) is more symbolic and meaningful, but trying to make religious things trendy is just...awkward...and probably why people get alienated by it, both within and outside of the culture.
I also have mixed feelings when I see teens/twenty-somethings dressed in skimpy Pocahontas costumes on Halloween… On one hand it’s rather innocent—who says you have to dress within your own race? You wouldn’t stop a non-white person from being Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. Then again, it also comes off as awkwardly trendy and sexualized. While women’s costumes tend to be sexualized no matter what they are (you can be a sexy clownfish, for crying out loud!!), the combination of “dressing up” like another culture and overt sexual undertones strikes me as rather tacky and insensitive.

Anonymous said...

First of all, Waves, thank you very much for this post! Secondly, I've been debating whether to comment - this is a subject that makes one (ok, me) prone to rambling, and I wanted to avoid that.
Having said that, I wanted to say that some people do need to lighten up and stop reading that someone wanted to mock and/or offend them (their culture) in every single little thing. Disclaimer - I do agree with the comments about appropriateness (not wanting to see one's national costume on drunk people etc, and it does not matter whether they are indeed from that nationality and hence "entitled" to wearing the said costume), but at the same time I am sorry, I will not check every single thing for its cultural context, it's simply impossible and will become my day-time job. And as such, I am really uncomfortable with this "calling out", laying heaps of guilt and such at someone's doors just because of one's ancestors.
I am white, and I am Russian (so from uber-villain, occupant nation/country, for some concerned). Ok. But what if I tell you that yes, I am Russian (as written in my passport), but with some Greek and Polish blood in me, would that put some spin on things? And to throw in some history - when some "occupation" was done with former "Soviet" republics, it was initiated by none other than Mr.Stalin, who, surprise, surprise, was Georgian by nationality and if one looks, there was a multitude of nationalities working together with him as well, so I do perceive it very unfair for "Russians" getting most of the blame for all that's happened during the last century...
Well, I've rambled long enough, I guess what I am trying to say is when you explain, (not all, but most) people will listen, but when you go on the offensive with guns blazing, guess what, you'll get similar reaction back, and I don't believe that will benefit anyone.

Autumn said...

Thank you for the thoughtful discussion here. I've never seen a headdress on someone non-Indian outside of a photo shoot (thankfully) but it exemplifies the larger issue that you've examined nicely here. I'd just add that it's always helpful to purchase culturally specific items from the people of the culture--it's not hard to find jewelry made by Real Live Native Americans, for example. It's a way of being responsible about trends and actually honoring the community that inspires a certain look.

I'll also add that though I look white, I'm part Native American, and that I feel highly self-conscious wearing something identifiably Indian. In part it's because I don't have anything specific to the Caddo nation (my tribe), but in part it's because I'm most apt to wear such things to pow-wows and worry that I don't look "Indian enough" for it to seem appropriate. There's no easy way to navigate this stuff even for those of us who have a sort of true cultural claim.

Darcey said...

I'm a Caucasian girl living in North India; I've been here for 8 months and will be here through mid-2013 or longer. It's dancing a fine dance of balance; I almost *have* to wear salwar kameez, out of cultural propriety - and when I went to a neighbour's house to get her help tying a sari for graduation (husband teaches at a school), she bedecked me in bindi and extra jewellery. The Tibetan ladies take us shopping for Tibetan clothes, and they're always so very enthusiastic to see us wearing native dress (both the Indian & Tibetan nationals).

Maybe it's because I'm here, and it seems less of a case of appropriation when I'm in the minority, when I'm being encouraged by colleagues/friends to make these purchases, or being given them as gifts. If I were travelling as a tourist somewhere else, I might be reticent, but I think that because I've been educated by these people that are taking the time to show me how to wear the clothes, etc., I'm a bit more comfortable.

Milla said...

Wow. I know I'm late for this party (and what a well-behaved guestage it has had-no inappropriate comments at all), but I just had to comment.

This topic has actually been on my mind a lot, surrounding mostly the very "trendy" Native American issue, on who's infringing I'm might be as guilty as the next person with my moccasins, headbands and dream-catchers.

I think as many of your lovely, thoughtful commentators have pointed out, the question isn't so much who's allowed to wear what, but what the connotation, their motivation and the wearers level of awareness of the culture who's dress they are re-interpreting, honoring or mixing.

It is obvious from just glancing at that girl's blog that she more or less deserved what ever outrage was coming her way. As a student of fashion, that is, in essence the language of clothes, one ought to have enough sensitivity to understand that you do simply take something that belongs to another culture and dress it up as your own.

Ceremonial cloth is one thing that should not even be up for discussion.

But there's still the question of your dream catcher earrings and mine.

There seem to be too popular stances on this topic. One is that they're just jewellery- free (or at least inexpensive) for all. That whatever meaning they once held has been lost and now it's just jewellery.

The other is that in spite the items worldly, proliferated status, its connotations still belong to the Native Americans alone.

If only Native Americans are allowed to wear Native American influenced clothes, simply because where would one draw the line? Are Navajo's allowed to wear T-shirts with Haida Totem Poles? Can Cowichans wear moccasins? Is it okay for the Lakotas to wear pictures of Kachinas? And how much Native heritage is enough to justify the wearing of dream catcher earrings? Half? Quarter? Tenth? Some?

(sometimes as a foreigner it seems to me that if everyone who claims some Native Heritage actually had it, there was a LOT of getting it on over racial divides back in ye olden days ;) (At the same time, if that's what it takes for people to identify with this land, become as Gary Snyder says, "us all native Americans", then I'm all for it.)

Often in these discussions, both sides get appropriation and influence mixed up. One can not compare wearing Dutch wooden clogs to the recent wounds of America's First Nations loss of their culture, but at the same time, the Native Americans are not some huge homogenous tribe that have equal access to one cultural heritage. Some have managed to keep much more of their culture.

The same goes for the Same and the Romane and many other indigenous and old cultures, who's traditional dress often comes under the radar of fashion in our globalized world. You could say that there hardly is a culture now that isn't affected by others, who's members carry its rue traditions unchanged. Change is the only constant in our world. Cultures clash and move and influence one another.

So my personal stance is neither of the above. One should simply be always aware of the cultural connotations of what one wears, whether it's designer labels or tribal jewellery. That to me is the only point of "fashion". One should buy it from an artisan of that culture if possible. One should know it's history and original use. Learn about the people it came from. Use the piece to understand the culture.

Thank you so much for this thought-provoking, well-written, amazing post. It has been a pleasure to read.

tinyjunco said...

hi - i haven't read all the comments, i did read the bulk of the post. on my father's side i'm of Scot, English, Irish extraction - on my mom's, German ad Chukchansi. i've lived in California my whole life, and look caucasian.

my first thought is - just ask. i don't know whether the ice skaters asked some Sammi elders what they thought of their costume idea before they went ahead with it. approaching tribal representatives in a respectful manner may have saved them some heartache later on.

as far as 'racism directed against people because they're white'...well, so far it sounds like people have just been subject to nasty comments from strangers. i've seen both sides myself and in my family history. the worst i've experienced in terms of 'racism towards whites' is nasty comments.

on the other side of the family - well, i can go to England and experience it's fabulous history and literature. i've been to Germany and seen the incredible architecture, back past Roman times, and heard the beautiful German language all around me.

i can drive four hours and be right in the heart of chukchansi country, the most beautiful land in the world. however, back in August of 2007 there were 6 people fluent in Chukchansi. fortunately they are working hard to preserve the language.

that's far from the worst of it, but hopefully it gives you a taste of the difference.

i've found that treating people respectfully and trying to understand their perspective generally results in greater understanding and is well received by others.

Susanna-Cole King said...

I know I'm belated in posting a comment to this, but I have read a lot on cultural appropriation lately, most of which I found either insensitive or oversensitive ... this is the first commentary/article on cultural appropriation that I agree with and is from the same perspective of my own, and speculates on the same feelings and questions I myself have had.

As a caucasian American, I wonder what cultural identity do I have, when my ancestors have roots in a number of countries, continents, and cultures? And what is American culture, when the U.S. is the melding of many cultures? Should I be limited to a t-shirt and jeans for fear of offense otherwise? I should hope not.

I'm a traveler, a vagabond, exploring other countries and cultures is fascinating, enlightening, invigorating to my mind and soul ... while I may be more so inspired and humbled as a human being, sometimes the inspiration radiates outward, to dress and design. Style isn't all vanity, but can be spiritual, ritualistic, symbolic, complex, etc ... I think it's awe inspiring all the ways people in this world dress and present themselves.

All my "ethnic" jewelry is either directly from the artisans (from my travels) or obtained through fair-trade organizations. I would never ever intentionally buy from a designer ripping off a culture's designs and selling it for quick profit. Recently I came across a Los Angeles designer who had stolen the traditional designs used in bangles made by the Tuareg people in Mali. I have some of these bracelets (authentic ones) and when I saw these copies, I thought they were originals, as that's just how exact of a match they were. I was appalled, needless to say the magazine posting these rip-offs on their blog, refused to publish my comment pointing out the plagiarism at hand.

There's no debate for me: make a rich designer a little richer or support people who are often living in poverty ... or even if they aren't, if they're the originators of a design, I'd rather buy from them.

I don't wish to offend anyone or be disrespectful, but I also don't want to be put in a box of what I can and can not wear. It's a fine line, I think ...

Forgive me, I've rambled endlessly. A bit silly of me to expand on your eloquent and well-written post ... what more can really be said, you rather spoke my mind. I'm glad there's someone else on the same page as me with cultural appropriation.

Hope you're well.