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Cultural Appropriation: What's the Issue?

11/05/2015 11:04 BST | Updated 09/05/2016 10:59 BST

Cultural appropriation is defined as the adoption of a specific part of one culture by another cultural group. It can include the introduction of forms of dress, personal adornment, music, art, religion, language or social behaviour.

Most people who come from marginalised cultures (myself included) don't have a problem with people wanting to participate in our culture in an appropriate and respectful setting - in fact, we love it! Under the correct circumstances, cultural exchange can be a truly wonderful thing.

The issue we take with cultural appropriation is usually not with what's being done, but how it's being done - when white society strips the indigenous historical, cultural, or religious significance from something and makes it mass-marketable, reducing people of colour to demeaning stereotypes. Whether this is intentional or not, it is extremely insulting, burdened by a long history of racial and ethnic discrimination and prejudice.

As free as people should be to don whatever hair and clothing makes them feel best about themselves, using someone else's cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is irrefutably an exercise in privilege. This includes current fashion trends of Native American headdresses, tattoos of Polynesian tribal iconography, Indian bindis, and even Twerking.

In my experience, the line between appropriation and appreciation becomes most blurred where Fancy Dress is concerned. Just take a minute to browse online and look at the kinds of costumes and accessories that are sold for the purpose of dressing up, you'll be shocked to see just how rampant the racism and stereotyping really is.

Now, before you eye roll me and say "it's just a joke" or "we're just dressing up in fun clothes," please, just read on a little bit.

I genuinely believe that the overwhelming majority of people who dress up in these things never intend to hurt or offend anyone. But despite this, many of the things they choose to wear as a "costume" perpetuate harmful stigmas and stereotypes, which in turn makes allowance for more vehemently racist attitudes.

Take a second to think about it - we can all conceive an image of a "ghetto" woman, an Arab Bedouin, a Geisha or a Navajo Princess, but do we actually have a singular version of what a white male or female looks like? How many people dress up as a white man or woman for Halloween?

Most people don't tend to think about the implications that costumes like this (and this, and these) would have on, say, a Native American woman - or a Mexican man. But that's not meant to be a criticism - after all, why would you? To you, it's just a costume; it's just a bit of fun. Those "implications" simply don't affect you.

Mostly, racially, ethnically and culturally based costumes are intended to be one of two things - humorous or erotic.

But ask yourself this: What makes these particular groups of people funny or sexy?

Absolutely nothing.

Unfortunately, the society we live in tends to equate whiteness with normalness, meaning that everyone outside of that category is weird, different, potentially joke-worthy.

If your costume is racially or ethnically or culturally based, the chances are that it's racist. (And if you're thinking "I don't see race, I just see people" or variations thereof, consider yourself an incredibly privileged individual who has never felt the humiliation of witnessing or being the victim of acts of racism.)

If you don't belong to the group of people you are dressing up as, and you haven't been explicitly invited by members of the group to dress in their clothing (e.g. for a Ghanaian friend's wedding), you shouldn't be dressing up as them. Period. It is absolutely unacceptable to just just borrow someone's race or culture for the day - and that too, just the bits of it you like. At the end of the night, you can take off your costume and return to everyday life without the discrimination or stigma commonly associated with those cultural expressions. You can wear your sari whilst walking home from the bus stop without feeling scared or anxious, or being told to "p*ss off back to where you came from." Just three days ago, I found that I could not.

I'll assume that you already understand the nauseating racism of "blackface." Most non-black people do, however many still think it's funny, and acceptable, to wear an Afro wig, or false dreadlocks. What they fail to grasp is that they wear these with the assurance that their real hair will never been deemed "unprofessional" - they will never be forbidden from attending school because of the the actual, literal hair that grows out of their head.

After all, it's unlikely that Afros and dreadlocks will ever be seen as presentable when we are making a mockery out of them by selling them as costumes.

These costumes are meant to be representative of people who are already in a marginalised position, but we are dehumanising them, reducing them to offensive caricatures in order to make our friends laugh, to make us feel more exotic, or, most worryingly, in order to make ourselves look hot. This fetishising and eroticising of women of colour in particular is highly damaging - and does nothing to help the fact that approximately 1 in 4 women of colour will be raped in their lifetime, compared to 1 in 6 white women.

Sometimes, what makes a costume funny is that a white individual is wearing another ethnicity or race (just look at any of the race/culture/ethnicity based costumes sold online - almost allofthem are worn by white people). That is categorically racist; as these posters illustrate, it is NOT OKAY to laugh at someone else's life.

A relevant factor to consider whilst looking at cultural appropriation is the notion that in an effort to assimilate, minorities in the West sometimes shed what makes them different. Take the example of the bindi: when Indian women first emigrated to places like Britain and the USA in the mid-to-late 1900s, they were teased or questioned for wearing bindis, and many of them avoided wearing them as a result. My 85 year-old grandma, who moved to England in 1976, describes feeling forced and pressured to change the way she looked, behaved and spoke just to earn enough respect to stay employed and safe. So when women like her see non-Hindu celebrities casually wearing something they were conditioned not to wear to fit in with precisely these sorts of women, it's no wonder they feel uncomfortable.

When I wear a bindi, I wear it proudly in the tradition of my grandmother and with pride of my Indian heritage, rather than religiously. For many others, however, the bindi signifies that the wearer is a Hindu by practice or origin, denoting a higher consciousness and a connection to God. It is horribly disrespectful to wear these items as jewellery, whilst getting drunk and high and screaming obscenities at festivals or parties. Similarly, Native American headdresses are often described as the equivalent of Western war medals; you wouldn't desecrate a military uniform, so don't dishonour a headdress. Simple. The same argument can be made for the cultural appropriation of the cross, which was a popular fashion trend in the UK a couple of years ago - I don't imagine many Christians would feel entirely comfortable about its use to adorn clubbing attire.

One of the most popular criticisms of the idea of cultural appropriation goes along the lines of "but people of colour wear Western clothes all the time. HYPOCRITES!"

However, a Kenyan teen wearing denim jeans is not at all the same as Katy Perry sporting the attire of a Geisha as part of her latest re-invention. The difference lies in history and power relations. Not so long ago, the oppressive forces of colonisation meant that Western culture invited, and in some cases, demanded cultural assimilation. In the modern West, people of all colours wore, and continue to wear business suits, t-shirts etc. in order to survive, to fit in - to be employed and taken seriously. But when you are of the dominant culture, adopting the nuances of other cultures is nothing to do with survival - it's just fun, or fashionable - and it's often offensive.

Racism is deeply ingrained into our history, and my pointing it out is not in any way an attempt to make you feel bad, it's just a fact. Recognising and accepting that fact has the potential to drastically improve our society.

In absolutely no way am I asking you to over-analyse everything you wear and wrack yourself in guilt. Nor am I in any way trying to police what you , as a white individual, should wear or not wear. What I am asking you to do, however is to educate yourself.

If you're going to use something from someone else's culture, do it with respect and a sense of humility (and ideally, with permission.) It is in no one's interests to repurpose something with religious or cultural significance for aesthetic use without a strong awareness of the object's origins.

Above all, remember that you are wearing someone else's life. Treat it with the same respect that you would treat your own.