One of the most mainstream feminist issues that has come out recently is cultural appropriation, which is essentially practicing or adopting aspects of a culture that is not your own. It goes beyond that simple definition though. Feminists and social justice warriors cry wolf on cultural appropriation a lot, and devalue the actual cases that are problematic. The fact is, we live in a society that has become a bit of a melting pot, meaning that lots of cultural aspects have folded over into mainstream.
The biggest complaint I’ve heard when it comes to issues like this is “We can’t do anything anymore.” It definitely seems like that when people put blanket statements and meanings over such a real, sensitive issue and doing so makes people who don’t understand feel isolated and defeated. Why would someone even try to understand feminism or improve when they’ve been told everything they do is wrong? That’s what often happens with cultural appropriation claims.
So, let’s look at some high profile cases of cultural appropriation to see if they are problematic.
- The Kardashians and their hair – A lot of people say the Kardashians culturally appropriate when they wear hairstyles that fall into the black community.
Technically, this is cultural appropriation and it is problematic because there is no acknowledgement. Even though the Kardashians have intimate connections to the black community, that does not mean they can take aspects from it without giving credit. It would be a different story if Khloe wore those Bantu knots or Kim wore cornrows and they acknowledged the fact that they were “inspired” by strong, black women. If they were even doing more to explicitly support the struggles and oppression of black people in America that would change things a bit.
2. Sushi and other food – Lena Dunham, who is the textbook definition of a white feminist, recently claimed that dining hall sushi was cultural appropriation. Some students were complaining that they were even calling it sushi because it wasn’t authentic and didn’t truly represent the cultural food staple in Japan. This is a prime example of blowing something way out of proportion. This may be a technical case of appropriation, but it is not heavily problematic because this bad sushi isn’t mocking the Japanese culture or not acknowledging that it is a Japanese food. It’s just bad sushi and cases like this trivialize when things really are offensive.
3. Halloween costumes – With Halloween coming up we’ve all seen costumes that make us think “that looks racist.” The “Indian Princesses” and “Mariachi Man” and “Geisha Girls” are everywhere and many wonder if it is OK or not to wear them.
A major distinguisher for figuring out if something is cultural appropriation is if the move seems like a mockery or a lack of respect. In the case of costumes, it is definitely a problematic case of appropriation. Making funny, basic costumes to represent real cultures and people that are around today trivializes historical expression and oppression, fetishizes actual people and promotes white supremacy because we make it OK to “take ownership” and mock another group. So all the bustle here is true, Halloween costumes that are based on actual, living breathing cultures is a problem.
What makes cultural appropriation problematic is when there’s no acknowledgement that whatever one is appropriating is from another culture or using it as a direct mockery or devaluing. The context of what you’re doing matters and directly affects if your cultural appropriation is harmful. No need to paint yourself in a corner to worry about offending and appropriating all the time, just think about what you’re doing and how it can be interpreted.