I was going to write about Coachella, but then I decided I needed to do another foundational, definitional type post. This one starts with trying to get a more specific working definition of what cultural appropriation in fashion actually is—and how popular notions of what appropriation is quickly become complicated.
From my perusal of the internet, here are some definitions I’ve seen of cultural appropriation:
– “Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group.” (Wikipedia)
– The ten definitions here are really, really interesting and include, “Cultural appropriation is usually considered to be a majority group (usually Whites or otherwise Eurocentric folks) mining a minority culture for the jewels of its heritage for their own pleasure or benefit while the voices of that culture remain silent or silenced.”
– Susan Scafidi of Fordham University offers: “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. […] This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.” (Jezebel)
– From Sociological Images, for your consideration:
From these and other discussions and definitions, we get the sense that people don’t object to appropriation just because it’s an act of borrowing. People object to borrowing without permission, or borrowing wherein the originator of the borrowed item doesn’t profit from the exchange, or borrowing that’s being done by the cultures that traditionally get to walk away with all the cool stuff.
For the purposes of my writing here, cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group, done in such a way as to produce one of the following results: a) deprive members of that culture of the profit they are entitled to, through their labor or legitimate claim to the element(s) in question, b) parody, mock, or essentialize the culture being adopted, or c) cause some other harm to the members of the culture being adopted.
… You know, real simple stuff.
You may notice that my point C is pretty weaksauce. “Some other harm” doesn’t really have the same ring as “silence,” “erasure,” “oppression,” and other terms you’ll encounter in even a cursory look at what people are writing about appropriation. The reason I don’t cite specific harms is because for me, this is the point in the definitions where things get particularly thorny.
I just thought it had been a long time since I had a picture.
In my first post, I talked about the process of appropriation as opposed to the “result” of appropriation, or the visual experience of seeing someone in clothes as opposed to how they got the clothes. I’m hesitant to attribute specific, definitional harms to the act of someone seeing you in clothes you’ve picked out, because I think there are a number of ways in which that visual experience and interpretation can break down. A few examples of where I see this breakdown and why it problematizes definitions of appropriation for me:
The author of “Why White Girls” is part Dzawada’enuxw and part Irish. In the linked article, she begins with an explanation of the types of appropriation she takes issue with (not just music-festival headdresses, but Halloween costumes and major league sports mascots as well). However, the specific pain she feels is not just because these representations diminish First Nations people to stereotypes:
“I know how critical many First Nations are of white people parading around in native-inspired outfits and rightly so. I am also aware of what it looks like when I, with my pale face, put red-stripes on my face during a protest, or wear cedar bark hat…”
“I have a strong desire to show off my ‘nativeness’, but the more native I look, the more fraudulent I feel.”
What this author is describing can be read as one of the ways in which our current cultural appropriation discourse fails to capture the nuance of the issue: Although her “process” is valid—she’s a First Nations person herself, these items come from her culture—she worries that the “result” of her wearing a cedar bark hat will be negative reactions from other First Nations people. She’d be lumped into the same category as white girls at a summer block party, despite her family history and her membership in Dzawada’enuxw society.
In other words, she fears that the visual “message” of putting on her culture’s traditional garments would be different than the reality behind it. This is a troubling concept not just for her personally, but for definitions of appropriation: If someone experiences feelings of anger, hurt, or judgment based on an inaccurate perception of cultural appropriation, are their feelings still valid?
If we say yes, they are, then that means that cultural appropriation is not an act so much as a reaction. It’s determined not by what someone has done, but what it looks like they’ve done.
If we say no, that cultural appropriation is an act that either has or has not happened, then we may have to acknowledge that there is a burden on people who perceive something as culturally appropriative to verify their perceptions.
White girls in headdresses are always making a big mistake, right? But what do we do if we don’t know for sure that they’re of European descent? What if we can’t know?
Describing a fashion show she witnessed at Columbia University, author Shondrea Thornton details a journey that started with appreciation for style, but quickly descended into gnawing discomfort:
“I had liked the clothes. I enjoyed the fashions and found them innovative and cool.”
“Fashions seemed to turn to fetishization. Designs got more and more bizarre as large, link chains started to appear on Black bodies juxtaposed with the ancient Egyptian symbols. The choreography and styling began to present the models less like models and more like exhibits in a natural history museum. And then Miss Vanilla, formerly known as Jen One, formerly known as Jennifer Rasinski from Connecticut, arrived on the runway in her signature fashions to end the show. Blonde, slender, and white, Miss Vanilla ended her show with a namaste pose before the models jumped off of the runway (literally) to begin their next set.”
One can interpret this experience as Thornton initially receiving one set of signifiers from Miss Vanilla’s pieces—specifically, she read an “afro-centric artistry in urban wear” based on the fashions she saw coming down the runway. But through the designer’s subsequent creative choices, such as the inclusion of chains on Black bodies, Thornton’s interpretation changed.
Not only did Thornton’s experience of Miss Vanilla’s entire collection change based on creative choices that emerged later in the show, but in light of what she learned after seeing all the designer’s choices, Thornton adds, “I also can’t help but feeling a strange wash of confusion and guilt over admiring [Miss Vanilla’s] pieces.”
Her experience challenges the idea that there is something sinister and inherent to acts of appropriation. When you have imperfect contextual knowledge, aesthetics are just that: aesthetic, open to interpretation, divorced from intent. We like to think that we can acquire critical thinking tools that will allow us to identify injustice the moment we see it. But good, smart, thoughtful people who are committed to social justice—even people who are being “borrowed from”—aren’t immune to a cool pair of sneakers.
The other weekend, I volunteered preparing and serving food at a Cinco de Mayo celebration. The celebration was hosted by a center that serves a multicultural (but predominantly Latino) community.
Now, I knew it was gonna be sunny and warm, which for the Pacific Northwest is a fucking miracle. I also happen to have a ridiculous frilly cotton dress that I wanted to wear! It seemed fun, weather-appropriate, and in keeping with my heritage, and also if you don’t wear it on Cinco de Mayo, WHEN WILL YOU.
Maybe without the necklace.
However, my doubts about this outfit quickly consumed me. “Is this too much? Will I look like a parody of my ethnicity? Will people look at me and see a white girl in costume? Or—even worse—what if I wear this dress and most community members are in jeans and t-shirts?” It’d prove that I don’t “get it,” that I don’t belong.
I sent the (white) volunteer coordinator an email: “What do people wear to this?”
Sasha Houston Brown, American Indian academic adviser at Minneapolis Community and Technical College from Dakota’s Santee Sioux Nation, ends her remarks to Jezebel in their appropriation primer with this deceptively simple statement:
“If non-Natives decide to buy native art, they should wear or display it with respect for the culture it represents.”
Based on the stories and definitions above, I’m left with a few more questions than answers.
If I look at you, do I then know information about your background or your family history?
Do we agree on what it means to wear clothing with respect?
How can I judge your intent? Should I? At what point should I start?
And of course, is appropriation how you feel—or what you do?