31 Jan [Guest Post] Culture Is Not A Costume: What Is Cultural Appropriation?
A few months ago, I discovered Simran on Instagram. At first, it was her detailed beauty reviews and stunning photos that caught my eye, but it didn’t take long for me to see what a driven and passionate individual she is.
Having worked in the beauty industry for the last 5 years, I have come to know and understand cultural appropriation and how common it is to cross the line, especially within this industry. For months now, I have been wanting to cover the topic in a detailed post, but I have never felt confident enough to do so myself. After chatting to Simran, the solution seemed obvious. I invited her to write a guest post, as she is constantly using her platform to educate others. I am always left feeling inspired after reading her content and have learnt so much through her posts. She was kind enough to agree and has written a detailed guest post explaining cultural appropriation and even included accounts that you can follow to diversify your own feed.
We live in a globalized world so it is inevitable that certain customs or cultural norms will be shared amongst different communities. This cultural exchange should be pretty harmless but this is not always the case. You see, there is a significant difference between cultural exchanges and cultural (mis)appropriation. Cultural appropriation occurs when a person or group adopts parts of a culture that is not their own. What makes this harmful is the fact that it often depends on unequal power relations. When an oppressive or dominant group ‘borrows’ cultural norms or customs from an oppressed or marginalised group, it can lead to exploitation.
Here’s a quick scenario to help you understand this concept: imagine you are wearing an item of jewellery (a necklace, for example) that has a special meaning in your culture or religion. Even though you love this necklace, you are often bullied and made to feel embarrassed about your cultural identity whenever you wear it. Because of this horrible response and despite how special it is to you, you decide not to wear the necklace anymore. Then, one of the people who bullied you decides to purchase a similar necklace and, when s/he wears it, s/he is praised and hailed as a fashion icon. This person takes it a step further and starts creating replicas of the necklace and starts to sell it as a new fashion trend. S/he, however, does not tell his/her customers about the cultural or religious significance and the origins of the necklace and, pretty soon, almost every person is wearing one of these necklaces (without knowing the meaning behind it). Because wearing this necklace is now a trend, you are bound to think that wearing it will make you seem ‘cool’. After all, it is genuinely part of your culture. But, when you start to wear this necklace again, you continue to be bullied because of it.
On an individual scale, this is hurtful. And, in reality, this scenario can be applied to whole communities, cultures and religious groups. Can you imagine that people are profiting off other people’s cultures while still discriminating against them? This is the reality of cultural appropriation. Moreover, although the above scenario is simplified, the effects of cultural appropriation are both harmful and oppressive to marginalised groups. For example, when a white person has dreadlocks, it is seen as ‘edgy’ or ‘trendy’ but when a black person has dreadlocks, they are sometimes called racially-offensive and/or stereotypical slurs.
So why is cultural appropriation harmful? Firstly, it perpetuates a system where one group is seen as superior whilst the other group is perceived to be inferior. White women wearing a hijab is ‘trendy’ while Muslim women wearing a hijab can make them a target for discrimination and assault (especially in states where there are discussions surrounding the banning of religious garb). Secondly, cultural appropriation makes light of historical oppression. By undermining genocide, slavery, colonialism, and other horrific events, dominant groups continue to perpetuate oppressive systems. Thirdly, the dominant group is able to stop engaging in the cultural activities whenever they please, whereas marginalized groups (such as people of colour) still have to face prejudice. This leads us to an important question: can a marginalized group appropriate the culture of the dominant group? Because cultural appropriation works on power relations, the answer is no. In many cases, the oppressed group was forced to adopt parts of the dominant culture (or else they faced persecution).
Unfortunately, numerous examples of cultural appropriation can be seen in the beauty industry. An instance of this was MAC’s Vibe Tribe collection. This makeup collection contained products that clearly featured prints found in Native American cultures. However, MAC did not credit any Native American cultures. What made this situation worse is the fact that MAC profited off the sales of these products while, at the time, many Native American communities were being denied access to their civil rights (for more information, read up on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests). I recently came across a South African beauty brand that uses Hindu symbols and words written in Sanskrit on the packaging of their products. When I asked the sales people about why they included those specific symbols on the packaging, they could not answer the question because they did not know the answer. I soon realised that religion and spirituality is part of this brand’s marketing. Using ‘exotic’ symbols and associating spirituality with a body lotion help sell their products.
Beauty YouTubers and bloggers have also been guilty of cultural appropriation by creating makeup tutorials in which they ‘dress up’ as people from other cultures. This is incredibly insensitive as someone else’s culture should not be trivialised and treated as a costume, especially if that culture has been and continues to be discriminated against. Despite this, YouTube and blogging platforms have also become spaces where constructive discussions surrounding cultural appropriation are possible.
So how do we avoid appropriating cultures? The key to this is research and education – it is important to learn about the cultural activities in which you engage. For starters, ask yourself these following questions. From which culture does this activity come? How was this culture historically oppressed or demonized? Is engaging in this activity hurtful/discriminatory to another culture? Take yoga for example. Did you know the westernized yoga at your local gym is quite different to the yoga practised by South Asian communities? Did you know that colonialists often used violent means against South Asians who practised yoga? This does not mean you have to stop practising yoga. Instead, try to be mindful of the true meaning of yoga, its origins and how yoga is more than just a form of exercise.
There are many other ways to think more diversely. It is important to engage with people from other cultures – in a respectful manner – but remember that they are not solely responsible for your education. You need to do your own research as well. Furthermore, you should also question your own beliefs and ideas about other cultures. Is what you know about other cultures based on assumptions and/or stereotypes or based on your personal experiences with people from cultures that are different to yours?
Here are a couple of bloggers and websites to follow if you want to diversify your reading:
If you are interested in learning more about cultural appropriation, I highly recommend you read Everyday Feminism’s articles on the subject.
Ming-Cheau Lin is a Taiwanese South African food blogger who writes and speaks about cultural appropriation (especially in the food industry) and her experiences as a woman of colour in South Africa. Be sure to check out her blog (Butter Fingers) and Instagram.
Mostly known for their arts festivals, Afropunk’s website features articles on gender, race, politics and their various intersections. Give their Instagram account (@afropunk) a follow if you want to diversify your feed.