Arts and Entertainment

Your Primer On Cultural Appropriation

A reflection of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry throughout the years.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

This summer, for the second time this year, Kim Kardashian has been accused of cultural appropriation for wearing dreadlocks. She sported the look at the MTV Movie and TV Awards and instantly received criticism, especially because she had received backlash for doing the same thing this January—she posted a picture of herself on Instagram wearing braids and cited the look as “Bo Derek” braids. Bo Derek was a white movie star known for her breakout role in the 1979 movie “10,” in which she wore the same hairstyle.

According to Oxford Dictionary, cultural appropriation is defined as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society,” which is why Kim Kardashian received extreme backlash after attributing the hairstyle that acts as a staple of African American culture to Bo Derek, a white actress. Lack of acknowledgment surrounding the history and cultural significance is part of what defines cultural appropriation. The other half is the power imbalance, in which cultural appropriation is rooted. The term “cultural appropriation” was coined in the 1970s and ‘80s by sociologists who criticized colonialism, one of whom was Kenneth Coutts‐Smith, who published “Some General Observations on the Concept of Cultural Colonialism” in 1976. Minorities are unable to appropriate white culture, since this is the dominant culture. It’s the ability of the privileged to profit off of the culture to which marginalized groups have been historically denied access that is upsetting.

It seems that every week, a celebrity is accused for committing the same wrong. Most of this generation has adopted an indolent attitude toward cultural appropriation. We’ve been bombarded with articles and scandals that contain these words so often that we’ve become desensitized to the issue; in part due to frequency, but also because of the nuance cultural appropriation holds. In the war against prejudice—and a world of racial profiling, whitewashing, and blatant discrimination—people seem to have developed the perspective that cultural appropriation holds little weight. However, the gravity of cultural appropriation is not in the clothes people wear or the slang they sing, but rather the worldview that it perpetuates and the fuel it adds to the toxic fire.

Though Kim Kardashian was able to flaunt her braids on the red carpet, a black six-year-old boy was banned from his fundamentalist Christian school for wearing the very same look. Zuhair Mahad was allowed to profit off of his summer line titled “Indian Summer,” dressing his models’ hair in feathers, while Native Americans were denied that right during the forced assimilation of the 19th and 20th centuries. Cultural appropriation perpetuates the double standard that creates racial disparities and a disportionate power dynamic. During the Milan Fashion Week Show in February, Gucci was accused of appropriation, after dressing their white models in sikh turbans and hijabs. This instance, in particular, demonstrates what makes cultural appropriation so frustrating: Muslim and Sikh people have a history of being physically and verbally abused for dressing in these garments. Where the injustice lies is clear—the apparent undermining of a people’s continuous struggle and the ability of the privileged to escape penance and receive praise.

When people discuss cultural appropriation, they often reference insensitive Halloween costumes or dresses on the red carpet. In terms of cultural sensitivity, the fashion industry is difficult terrain to trek. It’s an art form that is built on blending different looks and capitalizing on experimental outfits, whether the currency be dollar bills or entertainment value. Those “experimental outfits” often include cultural or religious subtext, or in some cases, actual religious text.

For example, Claude Eliette, the chief executive of Chanel at the time, received immense backlash for the 1994 collection that included a dress that was embroidered with lines of Qur'anic text. Karl Lagerfeld, who designed the dress, had adorned the chest area with scripture and so, model Claudia Schiffer’s breasts were dubbed as “satanic.” The transgression threatened Chanel's exports to the Muslim world and the matter was finally resolved once the three copies of the dress were incinerated.

A smaller but similar outcry was heard concerning this year’s Met Gala, in which the theme was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Religious themes in pop culture have almost always been met with controversy, and as the Western world grows more secular, most people in entertainment tend to steer clear of faith altogether. And so, it was no surprise when the Internet was met with the complaints of many enraged Catholics, who erupted with claims of cultural appropriation. Their arguments were squashed when it was learned that the Met Gala was endorsed and sponsored by the Catholic Church. The way which the Met Gala was conducted, with approval from the culture from which their appropriating imagery and the intent to respect and admire the art made the Catholic Church, distinguishes the Met Gala as an example of not-cultural appropriation. In addition, cultural appropriation is predicated on power imbalance, and the Catholic Church has certainly been a powerful force, and has a history of forcing their religion upon others. The idea that they would criticize others for observing their art and lore would be met with claims of hypocrisy, but not cultural appropriation.

Western culture has a history of forcefully assimilating immigrants and obliterating the cultures of indigenous people. We’ve certainly come a far way since then, but there is still social pressure to assimilate. Minorities are getting beat up for wearing turbans, getting cursed at for covering their heads with hijabs, getting fired from jobs for wearing dreadlocks; these type of hostile interactions are exactly why some cultures don’t feel obligated to open up to outsiders.

There’s a point in saying that it’s ridiculous we’ve gotten to this point, criticizing one another for “stirring the melting pot.” Regardless of personal opinions, we should all respect people’s rights to be frustrated. But don’t get angry at people for getting angry. Get angry that we’re in this position in the first place.