My culture isn’t a costume

Cornrows have recently become regarded as a fashionable hair trend.
Credit: 
Supplied by Stilfehler

Celebrities at Coachella wearing Native American headdresses, bindis and dream catchers is a common sight.The Kardashian-Jenner siblings have come under fire for sporting cornrows, dreadlocks and even the niqab. 

Recently, Valentino presented its spring-summer 2016 collection inspired by Africa. White models showcased their designs and pranced about sporting cornrows. 

Inspired by ‘Africa’, indeed.

These are all examples of cultural appropriation. A term that’s as problematic as it’s simple to understand.

Cultural appropriation is a term that describes the taking of creative or artistic forms, themes or practices by one cultural group from another, and it carries connotations of exploitation and dominance, according to Oxford Reference online dictionary.

In layman’s terms, cultural appropriation involves a dominant culture selectively picking parts of another culture as they see fit just to look ‘cool’.

This is problematic, as the dominating culture is usually the superior one, and oftentimes white. Western culture, for instance, is dominant and has oppressed other cultures for centuries.

Headdresses are an accessory for music festival goers. (Supplied by nova)

The sight of women, who have clout in the fashion world, blatantly subjugating other women just to look trendy, is saddening and unfortunate.

This is evident when celebrities, like Kylie Jenner, sports cornrows — appropriating another culture’s dress.

For centuries, black women have faced all kinds of discrimination because of the colour of their skin, as well as their choice to be themselves and proudly showcase important parts of their culture. 

Yet, when Jenner decides to wear these cultural pieces, it suddenly becomes okay.

Instead of using their influence to reduce the plight faced by different ethnic groups and minorities, these celebrities choose to oppress them further — knowingly or unknowingly — by continually choosing to make fashion choices that offend the culture they’re appropriating. 

The fact of the matter is simple. You can’t selectively adopt parts of another culture as you see fit. 

Let me put it this way, as a person of Indian heritage, if I was to dress up in my traditional attire — saris, bangles, bindi, the lot  — and waltz into the ARC, would I not endure stares and glances, and even be mocked?

I certainly would.

However, if another member of the Queen’s community decides to do the same, they would be appreciated for branching out and trying to have new experiences, and may find themselves featured on Queen’s Fashion Photography (QFP) or MUSE for being ‘edgy’,  or even fashion forward.

There’s a double standard here, and it’s applicable everywhere, not just at Queen’s.

It’s unacceptable for people — in the fashion industry or not — to adorn themselves with integral parts of another culture without properly understanding the cultural significance behind it.

People try to undermine  this concept by arguing that other countries have been ‘westernized’ — they listen to ‘American’ music, watch television shows and movies and have adopted a way of dressing that’s synonymous with the Americas. However, it’s important to distinguish the two — that’s assimilation, not appropriation.

One can’t help but be influenced by those factors when their creators have made their way into other countries and made people so painfully aware of their dominance. There’s a difference.

So it’s a completely different argument altogether.

Cultural appropriation is offensive. Selectively picking what you think is ‘cool’ over what you think isn’t is disrespectful. It’s time to be more culturally aware of the choices we’re making.

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