Even if you’ve been hiding under a rock (and who can blame you lately?) you’ve most definitely heard of cultural appropriation. The phrase is used when someone or a group of people of one cultural background is accused of borrowing, and some say “stealing,” styles or symbols from another culture without respect for those symbols. What makes this a particularly egregious act is that the borrowers seldom have a freaking clue about the significance of the accessory, hairstyle or clothing they’ve adopted and the whole thing just comes off looking and feeling like a disrespectful act — even if that wasn’t the intention.
The root of the problem with taking something that traditionally belongs to one culture is that it reinforces a power struggle. The person who has more power is allowed to exploit the less powerful culture for his or her own amusement or financial gain.
If two powerful and influential celebs like Chris Martin from Coldplay (who is British, which somehow makes it even worse) and Beyoncé are outfitted to look like Bollywood stars in their new music video Hymn for the Weekend, the message is that they can use only the most colorful (literally, have you seen this Technicolor nightmare of a video?) and fantastical stereotypes about a place like India and sell it as India. Throw in Bey wearing a gorgeous sari and decorative headpiece and, as breathtaking as she looks, it’s going to anger a lot of people who believe it’s an example of cultural appropriation at its worst.
It’s possible we’ve gone a little overboard debating our ideas of what constitutes cultural appropriation. But, for the record, these examples are never OK, no matter what society or the hottest celebrity of the moment thinks.
In the ’90s, every cool girl wanted to rock a colorful bindi on her forehead, just like Gwen Stefani. But times have changed and, even though Selena Gomez and Madonna continued to work the “trend” into their looks, a bindi shouldn’t be thought of as a trend at all. In Hindu culture, the gem is most often worn in South Asia and symbolizes the third eye, which wards off bad luck. It is also traditionally worn by married women as a sign of respect for their status as married women. We can all agree that a bindi is beautiful, but it isn’t an exotic treasure that women, who aren’t from this part of the world, should thoughtlessly wear to music festivals.
2. Native American headdress
Is there anyone who didn’t cringe when they saw Jessica Simpson wearing a feathered Native American headdress in a photo that went viral last year? Indian headdresses, or war bonnets, were traditionally worn during special ceremonies and symbolize a Native American chief’s courage, strength, valor, leadership and honor. And those pretty feathers weren’t an afterthought in its design, either. Each of the feathers was earned by a Native American warrior from the time he was a little boy and performed a brave or heroic act. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with wearing a regal crown of feathers, there’s a decent chance most people using it as a costume aren’t aware of its significance.
3. Geisha fashion
It’s one thing to wear a sumptuous and ornate robe inspired by Japanese geisha culture; it’s another to be Katy Perry at the American Music Awards in 2013 and go full-on geisha, white face makeup and all. Actual geishas work their tails off to earn the right to be called geishas and their training consists of dance, mastering a musical instrument, pouring tea and learning the art of conversation. Whether or not outsiders understand geisha culture, it is treated with immense respect in Japan, where it serves as a reminder of the importance of traditional and ritual in an otherwise technologically advanced society. Geisha is not a fashion that should be paraded on stage. It’s a way of life for very few, select women.
4. A hijab or burqa
Few celebs will go there, but when Lady Gaga donned a traditional Muslim hijab in her leaked track Burqa and then asked, “Do you want to see me naked, lover? Do you wanna peak underneath the cover?” well, for the love of all things holy, who in wardrobe approved that choice? There’s obviously a lot of controversy surrounding the mandatory hijab or burqa, which covers a woman’s hair and sometimes her face in order to preserve her modesty. In Islamic culture, the article of clothing is viewed as one that protects women from men who might harass or molest them and is said to help save marriages and put a woman’s personality front and center.
No, never, just no. Doesn’t matter that Roger Sterling painted his face black in one episode of Mad Men. Doesn’t make an iota of difference whether Julianne Hough meant any harm with her Orange Is the New Black Halloween costume. Blackface was used by white performers almost 200 years ago when they wanted to reinforce ridiculously stupid racist stereotypes about African Americans. No one in their right mind should attempt to do this ever again.
6. Cornrow braiding
A number of Caucasian women like Kylie Jenner and Cara Delevingne have been spotted with cornrow braids in their hair and the practice even inspired Hunger Games star Amandla Stenberg to call them out in a video entitled, Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows. In it, Stenberg made it clear why she and many other African Americans feel disrespected when they see Caucasian girls with cornrows: “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,” she said. Cornrow braiding originated in Africa and there are even hieroglyphs and sculptures that date back thousands of years depicting women with intricately woven braids.
7. “Chola” style
“Chola” style is a very specific glam-street style that belongs to first and second generation Mexican-Americans. There’s a good chance you know it when you see it: dark lipliner, lighter lipstick, gelled down and perfectly curled baby bangs, big gold earrings and plaid button-down shirts with only the top button fastened. Gwen Stefani in particular has borrowed from the style, as if it is nothing more than a hot trend. The problem here is even the word “chola,” which was first used by European colonizers to describe indigenous populations in South and Central America, and was purposely reclaimed by working class Mexican-American and Chicano Power movement. The “chola” style debate is still fairly new, but it’s fairly obvious this style should be left for the culture that created it.
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