Appreciation or Appropriation: The Ongoing Cultural Debate
Indian actress Aishwarya Rai
Cultural appropriation remains a hot-button issue in final quarter of 2015, with white celebrities sporting lips full of botox, heads heavy with braids, and ‘new’ outfits that look suspiciously like a salwar kameez, as well as festival-goers returning as the summer ends, now having discarded their feathered headdresses. The harm in this is not always clearly evident, as people are often unaware of the significance of the items they adopt as trends, but these are still acts of ignorance and cultural insensitivity. To summarise:
“Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves,” - Amandla Stenberg
Chopping up a culture and cherry-picking the preferable aspects is inherently wrong, especially if people are capitalising on racial stereotypes in doing so. Though it may seem like an insignificant thing, there can be much injustice in facing discrimination for something as a person of colour whilst seeing it lauded on white bodies. A recent article by Nikita Redkar powerfully details her experience of rejection and shame, one familiar to many people of colour, as something that has formed her opinions on cultural appropriation. However she juxtaposes it with her parents’ contrasting feelings of joy about the practice as a mode of acceptance. Redkar’s parents are not alone in their views: in her Huffington Post article, Anjali Joshi expresses that she sees the phenomenon of the bindi becoming a festival-fashion staple as a celebration of a national symbol, as opposed to cultural theft. The spread of the appropriation of something like the bindi is indeed the result of an ever-evolving multicultural society, but not necessarily an indicator of assimilation. Partaking an aspect of culture does not necessarily correlate to a respect for that culture.
While the appropriation of the bindi as an accessory may lead to ‘dot-head’ becoming a less prolific playground insult, is it worth divorcing it from its cultural context? Certainly the ‘fashionable’ adoption of hairstyles specifically for the upkeep of black textured hair (such as cornrows or locs) has done nothing to improve the corporate world’s negative perception of them. Though these hairstyles may be viewed as more ‘normal’ in the diasporic West, the impracticality of wearing white hair as if it were of a completely different texture seems to escape many.
Words by Jenna Mahale