Comments: Image comes from pexels.com.
When talking about cultural appropriation, one risks incensed Twitter arguments, hate-mobs, and self-entitled internet personalities claiming victimization for merely being asked to give credit to cultures where it is due. Others become defensive when natives of a culture criticize outsiders of wearing clothing with specific ritual significance, screaming out, “It’s just a (censored) piece of clothing” or something similar. The short of it: it almost never ends well. Only on occasion do we see people discussing, acknowledging the phenomenon, and working toward ways to better engage other cultures — and each other.
Truthfully, the discussion of cultural appropriation has considerable, nuanced academic roots and had been dissected and researched through the years in the social sciences and humanities. It is part of a larger, overarching discourse that criticizes the long-term effects of colonialism, not even necessarily a simple cultural essentialization leading to a black-and-white, right or wrong solution to address. Most of the stories about cultural appropriation these days focus much on fashion, hairstyles, and high profile celebrities. However, some of the academic research on the topic started with Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), which was a book criticizing Western portrayals of non-Euro American cultures in literature. Other scholars, such as Indian feminist and theorist Gayatri Spivak (1988), and Rina Arya (2018) have also provided fruitful contributions.
This is part of why I have blog posts on the topic of cultural (mis)appropriation, focused on the harmful aspects. Despite being a multiracial, and in one of the boats of the many who are negatively impacted by harmful cultural (mis)appropriations, even I have to regularly self-reflect, having internalized exoticization. Many people-of-color (POC) deal with worse, and more than myself. A note and update on this post: I had revisited this post recently and now omit calling myself a full-on POC. Even though White people started to call me POC before I knew what the term was, I recognize I am ethnically ambiguous and have passing-privilege. Out of respect, I want less white-adjacent people to be centered on discussions regarding POC. I digress.
In my younger years, I was an enthusiast of “all Asian culture,” trying to put together pieces of an identity I could not complete because I had been displaced from these ancestral roots. So, I can safely say I speak from a different place than someone merely just cherry-picking what they want from culture, with no love for the people in the culture itself (which I strive to have). I can say with a straight face I had been influenced by my grandmother’s family, unconsciously along with all American things surrounding, but I still contemplate on the long-term impact of colonialism now, especially neocolonialism. Being born from the bloodline of the oppressed does not mean I do not carry the legacy of the oppressor.
None of us are guiltless in our contributions to the most subtle systematic oppressions on cultures that are waxing and waning; often the latter. Being someone raised in the dominant culture, I know I have my own ingrained biases that I am growing cognizant of, but likely have many more to address. The disease that is cultural colonization guarantees that after the colonizers are done, the formerly colonized culture(s) spend all their time trying to put the pieces together (Arya, 2018; Spivak, 1988). Some members of the inside culture take place of the colonizers, becoming the new dominant culture that acts as gatekeepers for what is acceptable in the mainstream, and what must be pushed out or flat-out exploited.
I also struggle to find solutions on what is best. Truthfully, I want to support a society that loves inclusion and diversity, while making sure minority cultures have a voice. In addition, I know all too well many cultures, traditions, and so forth have died as a result of colonization, including through past harmful appropriations. Some of these cultures and traditions had also been killed by their own representatives as a consequence of cultural colonization left behind by the colonizers.
New definitions of authenticity for the culture come from previous colonization, leading to further destruction of the culture, such as what happened to the institution of the devadasis in India (Hackney, 2013; Jordan, 2003; Kersenboom, 1987).
Where I work, I will be collaborating with some people on some events for Black History Month with members of the local African-American Community, and a little time right after. One of these is having an open discussion with all interested students to simply discuss the topic of cultural appropriation. Because I am a librarian, I very much will need to keep close to delivering the academic information on it. This, in retrospect, is likely for the better, as it will help keep the nuance the discussion deserves for everyone to have a genuine, productive discussion on the topic. It needs discussed, provided as something for students to really, really think about. That being said, I still feel it is equally important to discuss how cultural (mis)appropriation is harmful in it all, regardless of how people choose to deal with it.
I do not believe in pushing for strict rules on what one can wear or not, but not because I feel entitled to “do what I want.” Mainly, it is I find it would be tricky to consider this, especially as not everyone has the information they need to enforce appropriate guidelines (no pun intended). We also do not want to open the scenery for White American gatekeepers trying to decide on behalf of the cultures involved. No outsiders should decide on behalf of a culture without their say. There are also cases, as C. Thi Nguyen had indicated in his expertise, where members of a culture may allow or invite someone to wear a garment. Genuine solidarity, and not using the notion of solidarity as an excuse to wear whatever one pleases, is permitted when the highest ranking representative of the culture allows it. People invited to cultural events should ask if they should be wearing garbs of that culture there. Matthes mentioned to Matala Gharib in NPR Codeswitch that if someone wishes to wear a cultural item for reasons outside of cultural education or genuine exploration of the culture itself, to tread with caution (Gharib, 2018).
Also, the problems with cultural essentialism that commonly lead to firm guidelines, ones that end up pushing out people who might have belonged to a group prior, might also arise (Matthes, 2016). For instance, my grandmother wants me to eventually have my own modernized Vietnamese gown, the áo dài, for special occasions and when I head to Vietnam. To make sure I do it the respect it deserves, I researched the item’s history and I spoke with her about the information I know, while seeking what I needed to know. Still. Anyone who does not know my mixed heritage might be quick to accuse me of turning part of my heritage into a costume. As understandable as the accusations may be, they would certainly be hurtful due to the identity issues that come with being multiracial.
At the same time in this case, I must also recognize my role as someone who is advantaged by her ethnic ambiguity (on the passing-privilege spectrum) where colorism is more socially salient than the white/non-white binary, which means further respecting my family’s traditional gown as something not to wear on a whim. My feelings do not compare to the history of people being unable to wear certain styles of áo dài in some cases, while ethnic minorities in some historical periods were forced to adopt it. Because I also recognize that the gown was originally belonging to the Cham community of Vietnam, I must respect that history, as well. I cannot even begin to speak on the experiences of my family if they were to wear it casually in the area where I live.
In the end, something does need done to change how we think about engaging cultures other than our own. Gayatri Spivak (1988), Said (1978), and other theorists have generally leaned toward the belief that people can say (and in kind, do) as they will, but that their actions are not free from criticism. Scholars can write about peoples’ experiences not their own, but the further they are from that experience, the more open to scrutiny they need to be. In kind, the further one is disconnected from a culture and wish to utilize something from it, the more open should be to criticism for misappropriating cultural items. This has been a common point on the topic in public discussions, and I take this stance for it is the best way I can consider addressing the issues surrounding cultural appropriation. Considering this, I have thought over ways that allies to underrepresented groups can pragmatically act a better ally, while approaching cultural appropriation without cultural essentialism (which is hard). Matthes in his article “Cultural Appropriation Without Cultural Essentialism?” has a lot more eloquent information on this idea (2016).
If you ever feel the want or need to wear or conduct a cultural practice, please reflect on why. Consider greatly your relationships to members of that culture.
Wanting to wear something just because “it is pretty” does not cut it. I have told some of my friends and relations as much. Just because you have a “token friend” or two from that culture is not sufficient to understand the significance of items from a culture of interest (Estrada, 2017). Are you a regular participant in the culture, or a participant-observer? Did a family adopt you as one of their own in a sense? I had some of these occurrences in my own experiences. Yet even with that, even with a spiritual father from the South Asian community, I would only wear traditional garbs of the community when invited to do so for South Asian events and festivals.
When I identified as a Hindu, I wore some plainer versions of these garbs (as in, not “over-the-top” like Justin Trudeau and his family did recently). I had chosen to not do so once I saw the many American Hindus who isolated South Asian Hindus from their circles. This, compiled with the fact the definition of Hinduism has been debated heavily over the years, has solidified my need to give berth. In kind, I am picky with yoga instructors because of the fact the over-emphasis on the physical benefits (as popular in “commodified” yoga) strips yoga of its original place in history.
There is a line between cultural appropriation and appreciation, as fine and murky as it is wont to be, but I acknowledge it exists. Some may not, which is their right —especially how abused the phrase “cultural appreciation” is — but I do. On the other hand, I am inclined to agree with the people who cast doubt on this phrase, as it is very difficult to culturally appreciate people who one might see as inferior (even if unconsciously so). Nonetheless, there is this small, complex, and gray area where cultural appreciation is believed to be something that can be used for good (Estrada, 2017). Only when the phrase “cultural appreciation” is not used as an excuse to do as one pleases.
There are people who wear saris at Diwali celebrations at the behest of their South Asian friends, and Angelina Jolie wears traditional garbs when going to South Asia. In these cases, people are engaging and acting as part of the culture, not just taking what they want from it. Now, I have heard stories of people making quick, hasty accusations toward cultural events that have white-appearing performers, despite being hosted by the native culture as a whole (ironically, the accusers are mostly well-intended self-righteous white activists). These accusations were ill-founded in the end, though all intentions involved were pure. Nonetheless, showing appreciation does not mean wearing a Native American headdress ceremonial headdress when you do not have the tribal status to wear one.
Deep reflection on this question and the many that come after will be rewarding in the end. Learning why one chooses to wear or possess cultural items can lead to one questioning whether doing so contributes to exploitative power dynamics. One anthropologist in the article, “Costume of Shangri-La,” discusses this in length (Kleiseth, 2014). She had once owned a number of Tibetan cultural items in her home, only to realize later she had no considerable reason to have them short to show her privilege in doing so. Further reinforcing this conclusion was the fact some of these items were things that Tibetans had limited access to in the end (Kleiseth, 2014). There was no real connection to the culture that warranted her having them. She was not even a Tibetan Buddhist convert. Thus, we have a case of one individual who chooses to provide these items to the people who could. During the process, she realized how significant some of these items were, and learned of symbolism that she could not have picked up without being indoctrinated into Tibetan Buddhism.
The short of it? Do your research, figure out what it means for you to wear the cultural items. When participating in cultural events, ask the highest ranking representative of the culture in question for the event if it would be appropriate. There is a difference between wearing a salwar kameez for a Bollywood routine endorsed by the local South Asian organization and wearing it for Halloween. Please do not be the latter.
Remember that no matter how “right” or “wrong” someone might be for criticizing you for cultural appropriation (they are almost always the former), it is not about you.
It never was about you, and it never will be about you. It is about a history, a history that has made all of us uphold deeply rooted power dynamics that make cultural appropriation harmful. The dynamics are so harmful, few of us are even aware of appropriating the items we use and consume in our everyday lives, the power imbalances rendered invisible to us. This history also involves people native to the cultures involved being unable to participate in their own traditions and fashion, because they are often subjected to discrimination for doing so.
In an ideal world, we can wear what we want and not think anything of it. Community insiders would have the credit they deserve and a say on who uses what rituals or clothes. We would not need to think on giving credit and acknowledge where cultural items we wear come from because we do it naturally. There would be no question of what sacred items are worn by who, in what circumstances, and so forth.
Unfortunately, we do not live in this ideal world. All of this is about an institution that perpetuates the discrimination and exploitation of other people, even if not blatantly.
Remember the “Blackface” Minstrel shows prior to the Civil Rights movement? Back then, some people did not think that was ‘racism,’ or at least not ‘wrong.’ Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln, “progressive” for their time, enjoyed them. Now we know that these shows not only played on negative and inaccurate stereotypes of African Americans, but they harmed public perception of African-Americans. Black people paid the price for the ignorance of the masses, exploited by White Supremacy. Now we have self-entitled white kids going around with blackface, claiming they are appreciating the look. Imitation is not flattery when the depictions are not even accurate and play off negative stereotypes. It is racism. Period.
We will have many of these uncomfortable conversations for a while, little to do with whether you are seen as a good person or not. At the end of the day, one can do what they want, but that does not mean it is free from feedback. Feedback is how we learn how to be better people, even if it becomes uncomfortable or painful. Anyone choosing to ignore the feedback, not recant their problematic ways, and so forth should not be surprised if their reputation is further smeared by activists and the impacted communities. Even then, the inconveniences of this do not match near the damage done by people doing things “just because they can.”
Many people concerned about appropriation want you to be an ally.
The majority of people I see who accuse someone of cultural appropriation understand that not all people intend to act harmful. For the most part, they are trying to give feedback so you are made further aware of the issues with appropriation. Some have even shown willingness to help the offender with offending less in the future. Many will move on after you acknowledge where you could have done better, or even if you are willing to give credit where it is due. Many go beyond the call of duty, not once oweing the (mostly White) offenders the emotional labor of an explanation, risking invalidation. Kim Kardashian wearing her African-styled braids became a problem for her, not because of an honest mistake, but because she repeated the same mistake and called them “Bo Derek braids.” When she made her slip the first time, she did not apologize or say how she would give proper respect in the future. At the end of the day, she did not give credit where it was due, and reacted to any correction with shutting dissenters out. Therefore, she is notoriously a “culture thief.”
As Janelle Okwodu (2018) pointed out in her Vogue article, “Proper acknowledgement of each other and the past takes only a moment — but it makes all the difference.” This leads to the next consideration.
Please, please listen and validate people who bring up the concern, especially if they happen to belong to the culture in question.
Whether you agree with them or not, please listen. They speak from a very reasonable, logical concern based on their personal experiences and history that has happened, even if the history is not as emphasized as it should be. Just because one does not see something a problem does not mean the other person’s expressed concerns are unreasonable. If anything, someone deciding something is not a problem because they are not negatively affected speaks to their privilege.
We will make mistakes when trying to better appreciate people and their cultures, while also doing what we can to make sure the members of impacted cultures are heard. I have made my own mistakes, ones that in reflection I sometimes say I ‘should’ have known better. Well, I know better now. These are lessons learned, and more may be learned in the future. Fortunately, I was not so high-profiled back then to have my blunder memorialized and widely spread for all out-of-context reactions. Truly, I am embarrassed for it! From here, I can only do better on these things.
When you have concerns about a group being culturally appropriated, please make sure the natives can speak for themselves, or reference them.
Please especially consider this if you have no ties to the culture in question. I had been adopted as a spiritual daughter to a family or two out there. To this end, I will be speaking from a different place as one who has just a “token friend” or two from a community. Still, I am starting to really consider how to better do justice to this advice even with that, and I now endeavor to find ways that center the people affected more. One legitimate issue that comes about with some accusers of cultural appropriation is some of them may not even know what they are criticizing (particularly when White). Some see a White person wearing a traditional Japanese garb on stage, and do not consider that many performers on stage are Japanese. To top it in this example, in this case, American Japanese organization is hosting the event.
If one is sure of what is going on, I definitely am not one to stop you. Naturally, I think it helps to reference native voices in the conversation, as to let people know where your facts are coming from. Pass the mic down to the insiders when they are around. Direct people to them if you can. Part of the whole criticism surrounding the appropriation of cultures had derived from the fact ‘insider’ voices are unable to represent their own culture (Arya, 2018). Should anyone take anything from this long-winded musing and set of suggestions, it is we all need to work on ways to increase representation of marginalized voices. It is part of why recruiting diverse authors has become important for writing.
On this point, please, please do NOT reference and single out a friend who says, for instance, your African-styled locs are okay to wear. Please, please do not triangulate POC against each other. This is a harmful dynamic, which has historically been a problem during the colonial era. Tokenism combined with White triangulation divides communities against each other. That friend of yours is also generally going to look at you favorably, because that is what friends do, and they may also not want to lose your friendship. So dragging them into the situation willfully exploits their emotional labor when you are asking them to side with you, versus seeking genuine feedback on how to do better.
No one in this is expected to be perfect. People may not even agree with each other on what to do with this pervasive social issue. For instance, I, as a Fantasy and Science-Fiction writer, will likely be trying to represent cultures outside my own. It comes with the territory, as world-building mandates having inspirations from a variety of sources. My own world will also be less Western-centric, as I am trying to tell stories that I wish I learned growing up. Even with this, I still ask myself questions about this topic, if not because I was surrounded by Euro-American culture along with my Southeast Asian family. I also understand well how the wrong impression might come across, having been on the receiving end of awful, hurtful stereotypes in certain periods of my life when Colorism benefited me less. Intensive research, studying idioms, remembering stories I learned, consulting friends and family, and requiring hardcore feedback, should hopefully go a long way.
However, for anyone who might not think it a big deal, I have another anecdote to relay. This one has much to do with the ongoing destruction of Western cultural items, in fact, pertaining to less represented elements therein. Someone, who out of respect I will not name, was recently accused of being a white supremacist because they were a neo-Pagan who venerated Nordic gods. In this day and age, this is one of the worst things to be called. It was also certainly not true. Regardless of the character of the person who made the accusation (my conjecture was they were toxic), there was a bitter lesson learned. Later in the week, I researched hate groups and found something concerning: neo-Nazis were appropriating Nordic symbols. Some neo-Nazis who infiltrated pagan communities have also tried to exclude non-Whites from practice, hijacking the idea of cultural appropriation for their own benefit (irony does not evade me).
It sounded awful to me a friend was accused quickly of white supremacy for having Nordic symbols, but after learning what I did, I see even more what is at stake. Several of my neo-Pagan friends venerate Nordic gods, and have Nordic symbolism utilized in their rituals. The more hate groups use these symbols, the more people will associate these sacred items with a legacy of bigotry, violence, and atrocity. Swastikas had already been tarnished, and anyone keen to detail will notice some Asian symbolism naturally have them. Thus, the many of explainings on how these Asiatic symbols held no affiliation with the Third Reich. Frustrations aside, I cannot blame anyone for being concerned. History happened, and many of us are even lesser for it.
I hope we can start having real conversations about how we can culturally appreciate — not (mis)appropriate — in a way that will further protect previous cultural symbols as well as practices from the residues of colonization. Please be good to yourselves this year. Thank you for having made it this far, as well as for reading this long musing!
(For Further Reading or Viewing, Some Academic, Some Pop-Cultural Articles)
Arya, R. (2018). Whose history is it anyway? the case of exhibit b. Journal for Cultural Research, 22(1), 27-38. doi:10.1080/14797585.2018.1426476
Estrada, M. (2017, July 28). The fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/meera-solanki-estrada/the-fine-line-between-cultural-appropriation-and-appreciation_a_23004529/
Gharib, Malaka. (2018, October 26). When is it OK to wear clothing of another culture? Codeswitch, NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/10/26/658924715/when-is-it-ok-to-wear-the-clothing-of-another-culture
Hackney, A. (2013) The question of agency and conjugal norms for the Devadasi. Religious Studies Graduate Theses & Dissertations. Retrieved from
Jordan, K. (2003). From sacred servant to profane prostitute: A history of the changing legal status of the devadasis in india, 1857-1947. New Delhi: Manohar.
Kersenboom-Story, S. (1987). Nityasumaṅgalī: Devadasi tradition in South India (1st ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Kleisath, C. M. (2014). The Costume of Shangri-La: Thoughts on white privilege, cultural appropriation, and anti-Asian racism. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 18(2), 142–157. https://doi.org/10.1080/10894160.2014.849164
Matthes, E. H. (2016). Cultural appropriation without cultural essentialism? Social Theory & Practice, 42(2), 343–366. https://doi.org/10.5840/soctheorpract201642219
Okwodu, J. (2018, January 30). Here’s why Kim Kardashian’s cornrow controversy on social media matters. Retrieved from https://www.vogue.com/article/kim-kardashian-west-cornrows-controversy-social-media-bo-derek
Rout Nihal. (2016, June 30). A (brief) history of Blackface & Minstrelsy. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXlXcAQFy90
Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.
Spivak, G. C. (1988). Can the subaltern speak?. Basingstoke: Macmillan.