Meet the Death Metal Cowboys of Botswana. In black leather decorated with metal studs, they play a pounding style of music that people who know more than me trace to the British band “Venom” and its 1981 album Welcome to Hell. Question: Is this Cultural Appropriation? Why or why not?
Cultural Appropriation has more than ever become a topic of debate, some arguing its unacceptable while others counter arguing that it promotes cultural exchange. Before we deep dive into this topic, I feel it’s appropriate that we first define the word. According to Oxford dictionary, Cultural Appropriation is the ‘Unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the practices, customs, or aesthetics of one social or ethnic group by members of another (typically dominant) community or society.
At Oberlin in 2015, a Vietnamese student shamed the dining hall into ceasing to serve its version of Banh Mi sandwiches. Instead of a crispy baguette with grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs, the sandwich used ciabatta bread, pulled pork and coleslaw. “It was ridiculous …. How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?”
The references to “baguette” and “pâté” in a food product of a former French colony might have tipped off the angry Oberlin student that the banh mi is not quite as traditional a Vietnamese food as she imagined. When this exotic remake of a classic pate en baguette was first sold in the streets of Hanoi, the vendors called it “banh tay”: Literally "Western-Style Bread.”
In as much as some can argue that it is human nature to interact with other communities or people of different identities and borrow some cultural aspects, we need to learn that sometimes there is a thin line between appreciation and appropriation. This is particularly vital when the borrowing does lead to exploitation. Let’s discuss ways in which Cultural Appropriation is negatively impacting preservation of cultural heritage.
What has been termed as borrowing for a very long time has been brought to light and it has been identified as exploitation. A good example that is very recent is fashion industries taking cultural pieces and making huge profits out of it without incorporating the communities to which the culture belongs to taking into consideration most of these communities still grapple in poverty. Trademarking is never a solution and absence of trademarks doesn’t mean exploitation is appropriate.
2. Silencing, erasure and Misrepresentation
One of the harms of cultural appropriation is misrepresentation which can make a culture come across as untrue or misleading. This can often times breed prejudice and stereotypes. Making a culture seems like a representation of the whole community can often times cause the culture in question to lose its specific meaning.
A Canadian university cancelled its yoga classes as Culturally Appropriating – notwithstanding that most of the strenuous moves taught in a modern class actually originate in Danish gymnastics and British army calisthenics, which were in turn appropriated by Indian entrepreneurs seeking to update yoga from a meditative to an active practice for the body-conscious modern age.
Cultural Appropriation has often times denied some members of a group to represent or speak for themselves especially marginalized groups and communities. In some instances, it causes erasure, this comes about when it popularizes an action or a piece from a culture but fails to educate on its significance.
The damage cultural appropriation causes is not just to a single individual but to a large group and can cause an offense to one’s moral sensibilities.
The fashion industry is one of the major culprits of Cultural Appropriation; we’ve seen instances where models wear bindis, turban and other significant cultural and religious garments as a fashion piece. During the Milan Fashion Week 2018, Gucci appropriated Sikh turbans and Hijab and having non-Sikhs models wearing turbans, which carry great significance for the Sikhs as it’s not a fashion trend rather demonstrates their faith. There was a public outcry calling out Gucci especially considering how Muslims and Sikhs are mocked for the turbans and hijabs and often targeted with violence for wearing them in public.
So, does this mean it’s always wrong to engage with a different culture?
Nope! There are times when it’s encouraged to try something from a different culture. Being invited to an Indian wedding where the hosts are cool with you wearing traditional clothing is not cultural appropriation. You’re invited to take part by people from that culture. So, the all-important ideas of dominance and oppression don’t exist here, which is what makes cultural appropriation a big deal in the first place.