Writing by Molly McKew // Illustration by Freya Bennett
You may have heard the term “cultural appropriation” around in the media in the past several months: Last December Azealia Banks and Iggy Azalea engaged in a lengthy Twitter exchange about Azalea’s references to African American culture in her music videos and performances; and earlier this year, American high school student and actress, 16 year old Hunger Games star Amandla Stenberg uploaded a viral Tumblr post where she called out several pop stars such as the beloved Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus for treating aspects of African-American culture and history as, as one commentator called it, a “pick’n’mix stand at the multiplex.”
The referencing of symbols, clothes, and histories of non-Western cultures can be seen all over the media and IRL; whether it be a feather headdress on a fashion runway, “warpaint” on your friend’s face at a dress up party, or Taylor Swift twerking in the “Shake It Off” video. We can easily shrug this off (or shake it off) as playful irony; however, cultural referencing can easily veer into cultural appropriation.
So, what is cultural appropriation? The fantastic website Everyday Feminism (a great resource for explaining key feminist ideas, complete with cartoons!) defines it as: “when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own”. Usually, they go on to say, it takes the form of a dominant culture adopting aspects of a culture that they themselves have historically oppressed.
But is it all bad? Are these references simply a harmless and fun celebration of cultural diversity based on genuine interest? Or are they superficial encounters with another culture that verges on racist caricature? The line can be blurry; but what we do know is that racism is so powerful because it can be enacted in subtle ways– ways that are often not intentionally malicious, but still harmful. Calling out more subtle forms of racism to dismantle this power is an important part of creating a fair and equal society.
As a white woman who experienced a fairly culturally homogenous upbringing, I understand the intrigue with which encounters with new cultures can be experienced. Although I grew up surrounded by people with similar upbringings and values to mine, my mother was the open-minded hippy type and often spoke about the values, spiritualities, and histories of non- Western cultures. Thus, as I grew older, I became eager to question the value systems of the West. It is common to experience this as one begins to develop a stronger sense of one’s own individuality. This may mean questioning or even rejecting those of your upbringing and surroundings. Engaging with other cultural traditions, whether you grew up in the West or elsewhere, can provide food for thought in terms of examining your own values. This can be a great thing!
Further, for a country like Australia, that excluded non-White people under the White Australia Policy until 1973 (that’s right, 1973– although, definitions of who was a white person did shift and change during this time), surely a positive celebration of cultural diversity is an important way of rejecting the racism that is well and truly part of Australia’s past?
This is one argument. Clearly, however, it is not that straightforward. Making references to cultures that are not your own– whether in fashion, music, or art– can ultimately perpetuate stereotypical and potentially dehumanising ideas about the culture in question. Donning a sombrero and executing a poor rendition of the cucaracha may be funny at the time, but you may want to ask yourself, to what extent this is actually a mockery of a living, breathing, complex and sophisticated cultural tradition?
Further, cultural referencing can perpetuate an uneven power relationship between a dominant culture and a cultural minority, where the minority becomes an object for the dominant to take from, package, and consume. When Iggy Azalea got cornrows, she could have asked herself: “Do I understand the history of cornrows?; How would I feel if a symbol or tradition that meant a lot to me and my community was used as as a dress up?; Is it offensive to don a hairstyle with a complex history as a costume?” We know that cornrows are much more than a hairstyle: they originated on sugar cane fields in the slavery era as a way to contain hair. This was often enforced by slave owners. African American hair was seen, and still is, as Chris Rock shows in his documentary “Good hair”, as something to tame and straighten, i.e. make more white.
A young white girl embracing this hairstyle because it looks “cool” or “ghetto” is simply taking an aspect of African-American history and turning it into an object for consumption. She is using a culture to contrive an image for her own gain. As Azealia Banks said in an interview about her conflict with Iggy Azalea: “This little thing called hip-hop that I’ve created for myself, that I’m holding onto for my dear fucking life…I feel like it’s being snatched away from me or something…the blackness is gone”.
Turning aspects of cultures into a fun exotic accessory constructs a whole culture and history as a symbol of exoticism, ancientness, or a quaint curiosity from the past instead of the complex, sophisticated and ever-evolving culture that it is. Cultural appropriation can distill an entire culture and history into a trend and object for entertainment.
As Jennifer Weston, an endangered languages program manager and Hunkpapa Lakota woman from Mashpee, Massachusetts points out: “When modern Natives [Indigenous people from North America] see half-naked chicks strutting around on runways or street corners completely devoid of knowledge of our real cultures and religions, AND misrepresenting and misappropriating these sacred symbolic articles, we must demand respect for our religious practices. Such misrepresentations sexualize, commodify, and pervert our traditions”.
All of this begs the question: When does engaging with a culture that is not your own shift from a genuine encounter into cultural appropriation (or vice versa)? Perhaps before donning a sombrero, putting on an accent, or sticking on a bindi, we should encourage each other to engage in some self-reflection and some research and reading! We can think about the perpetuation of stereotypes; how much one actually knows about the culture in question; and whether interest in the consumable aspects of a particular culture is matched with an interest in the social and political standing of the people in question. Obviously not all cultural appropriation takes the form of dominant cultures referencing that of minorities; but much of it is. This means there is are power relationships that must be acknowledged, power relationships that could simply continue unless a conscious effort is made to challenge them. Many people will have no problem buying a Aboriginal art print tea towel but would never even think of donating to political causes aimed at pursuing social and political equality for Indigenous people. As Amandla Stenberg asked: “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?”