There is a very fine line between appreciating and appropriating the culture of others. What makes the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation? Where is the line drawn? In my opinion, Cultural Appropriation stems from a place of privilege coupled with an ignorance of the original cultural importance. Power Structures play an important role in cultural appropriation. Often times it is white people appropriating the culture of other marginalized minorities. They select aspects of the culture that are fashionable or trendy and ignore the meaning or symbolism of the item. For it to be cultural exchange “there needs to be some element of mutual understanding, equality, and respect for it to be a true exchange,” and you should be “engaging with a culture as a respectful and humble guest, invitation only,” (Uwujaren 2013).
There is also the difference between restricted and unrestricted symbols (âpihtawikosisân 2012). Restricted items are items or symbols that are earned, or replicated symbols that can be used officially by people who have earned them, or can be mocked by people who have not. Unrestricted symbols are things that do not require achievement and are free to use (âpihtawikosisân 2012). This is helpful in drawing the line between cultural appropriation vs. appreciation. “Restricted” symbols are often used when it comes to cultural appropriation. If a person not of a plains culture were to wear a native headdress, it would be seen as appropriation as they have not earned the headdress, nor do they know the meaning behind it. The most brave and powerful people in a tribe only wore the native headdress, and they earned a feather every time the tribe felt they acted in a particularly brave way (Indians.org). Therefore, people who wear the headdress are coming from a place of privilege to use the article as a statement of fashion. They are ignoring and disrespecting the original culture and the importance they put behind it.
Another issue with cultural appropriation is the portrayal of the Asian cultures in the Western world. Edward Said coined the term Orientalism to examine the way Asian cultures are stereotyped from a colonialist ideology. Huffington Post examined the portrayal of a few stars portraying acts with “Asian influences.” In particular they looked at Katy Perry’s “geisha-inspired,” AMA performance, Selena Gomez’s “Hindu-themed” Billboard Award’s performance, and Lady Gaga’s “burqa-accessorized wardrobe” (Duca 2013). It is extremely risky for celebrities to portray these cultures, when they themselves have no association to them. Celebrities have such a wide sphere of influence; they open up what is acceptable to their fans. If celebrities are portraying the ideals of cultural appropriation to consumers, they are taking a part in the cultural production of these negative actions.
A Sociological Images article examined cultural appropriation in tattoos. Many people get Chinese or Japanese symbols tattooed on them with no relation to either language or culture and even less knowledge of what the symbols actually mean. The article discusses a blog, Hanzi Smatter, who asks for tattoo submissions of Japanese and Chinese writing, and tells people what their tattoos actually mean (Christensen 2012). Hanzi Smatter discusses how most of the tattoos do not mean what they think they do, and some have no meaning whatsoever (Christensen 2012). Hanzi Smatter states that “some tattoo shops use this gibberish font for tattoos—using the font to spell out words letter by letter, when Chinese and Japanese don’t work that way,” (Christensen 2012). This shows the clear consumerism of these aspects of cultural appropriation. There is such a market for these “exotic” looking tattoos, that tattoo parlours have incorrect symbols, and people do not even look into it. This shows the privilege of some to use a part of a culture to look good, with a complete ignorance of the actual meanings behind it.
As a white female, I have no experience with my culture being appropriated. However, I have seen others glorify certain aspects of other cultures for their own benefit with little knowledge of the culture behind it. Around Halloween, my building had a meeting about cultural appropriation in costumes around this time. Most of the people understood why certain elements, such as “black face,” were completely wrong. However, many of the people on my floor became quite insulted when they were told they had to be careful when emulating certain aspects of Disney princesses, like Mulan and Pocahontas. The message here was not do not be your favourite princess, rather, be careful how you portray certain elements, as it could be insulting to others culture. Coming from a place of privilege, it was difficult for them to see why wearing Pocahontas’s “native” outfit could be seen as problematic or insulting.
In conclusion, it is often difficult to draw that line between appreciating and appropriating, but it ultimately comes down to a knowledge and respect of others culture. People need to recognize the “restricted” and “unrestricted” elements and work from there. I am by no means saying you should not appreciate the beauty of different cultures, but you should be aware of what you are appreciating.
âpihtawikosisân,. 2012. ‘An Open Letter To Non-Natives In Headdresses’. Retrieved March 9, 2015 (http://apihtawikosisan.com/hall-of-shame/an-open-letter-to-non-natives-in-headdresses/).
Christensen, Wendy. 2012. ‘Lost In Translation: Tattoos And Cultural Appropriation » Sociological Images’. Thesocietypages.org. Retrieved March 9, 2015 (http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/04/13/lost-in-translation-tattoos-and-cultural-appropriation/).
Duca, Lauren. 2013. ‘Cultural Appropriation 101: Feat. Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus And Selena Gomez’.The Huffington Post. Retrieved March 9, 2015 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/25/cultural-appropriation-katy-perry_n_4337024.html).
Indians.org,. 2015. ‘The Symbolic Meaning Of An Indian Headdress’. Retrieved March 9, 2015 (http://www.indians.org/articles/indian-headdress.html).
Uwujaren, Jarune. 2013. ‘The Difference Between Cultural Exchange And Cultural Appropriation’.Everyday Feminism. Retrieved March 9, 2015 (http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/09/cultural-exchange-and-cultural-appropriation/).