The Debates Around Cultural Appropriation and the Value of Appreciating the Cultures of Others
Culture, a word that has a valuable meaning for everyone but not everyone appreciates it. “After evidencing there is not a clear, plain, unitary idea of what ‘culture’ means in these yearly published reports” (Telleria, 2014), but it is something that people use to identify their selves. In modern societies ‘cultural consumerism’ became more mainstream and can be found easily in the industry. From supermarkets selling food from different cultures, to shops having households with cultural prints, to clothing stores having garments reminding a specific country. The question here is, cultures are longstanding, so why do they come in and out of fashion? A lot of fashion designers find inspiration from different items around them in their everyday life. Another thing they take inspiration from to come up with a new design, are cultures.
Some people find their way of inspiration appreciated and others take that as cultural appropriation. The issue of why cultural appropriation is much-debated in today’s society, could easily be due to globalization, contemporary multiculturism – the extent which societies are increasingly diverse, even the tension between cultures, as ethnic groups stick together and the idea of the dominant power still exists. In today’s pop culture Hip-Hop and African “style” became really widespread because of the industry. With well-known Caucasian artists adapting the African “style” as a fashion statement, they influencing their fans to copy them without really know the history and the roots of the current trend. This surpasses the word appreciation and it becomes appropriation.
The aim of this essay is to highlight the problems of the African cultural appropriation in fashion, and by doing so I want to raise awareness for this current issue and make people more conscious about it. Many people do not know the differences between cultural appreciation and appropriation, as what separates them is a really thin line. To have a better understanding between these two words and why it is important to have them in our mind, we first need to know their exact definition. Firstly, the term cultural appropriation is often used to describe when something is borrowed and used in an inappropriate, unproved, or unwanted way. Mainly, these cultural borrowings are usually called appropriation or theft. Regarding to Stenberg as well “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high-fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves” (Don’t cash crop on my cornrows, 2015). In human experience, to borrow and cultural mixture can be found in many situations, like art, language, religion, agriculture, folklore, literature, fashion, cuisine, music and many other cultural elements. As you can see cultural mixture is an often phenomenon in our daily life doings, but still the debates about the current context is spreading notably around the world (B. AREWA, 2017).
In contrast, cultural appreciation is really important especially due to the fact of the many multi-ethnic communities around the world. Appreciation means to give “equal opportunities, rights and services to people regardless of their personal attributes such as socio-economic status, age, gender, ethnicity, cultural traits, religion, faith and educational background” (Awang et al., 2017). It is a procedure of finding out about another culture with respect and civility/politeness, which it also connects with the cultural adaptation that alludes to the procedure of an individual join into another culture and feeling comfortable within it (B. AREWA, 2017). According to Sing-nan Fen, “appreciation is the illumination of the former, not a rehearsal of the latter” (Fen, 1957). How I understand his saying, is we have to appreciate the original piece and where it is coming from, rather to choose a copy of the piece from a secondary creator. It is indeed easy to confuse the two words, as it’s mentioned in ‘Social integration practices among multi-ethnic youths’ article, “appreciation, also refers to a person’s behaviour that involves taking something with cultural significance from another culture for their own” (Awang et al., 2017). In my opinion, this definition on its own without an example, sounds more like appropriation.
But why it is wrong to take something because you appreciate it, from the moment that it is something original and you can give credit to the culture you took it from, rather than create it and saying it is your own creation? Does it really begin and end with just individuals’ opinions and perspectives? Or is there truly a forbitten line which can actually tell us when our action of borrowing from other cultures becomes insulting and disrespectful? The debates about borrowing from cultures are not new. In the United states, inescapable and continuous discussions about the improper uses of African American music have been obvious since the beginning of the recording area (B. AREWA, 2017), and it continues in the fashion industry as well, with big fashion houses and celebrities making money using the African culture. A recent event was in 2017, with Louis Vuitton being accused of appropriating the African culture by stealing Basotho blankets, a sacred African garment by the ethnic group of people of Basotho. Stealing a culturally significant garment and turning it into the latest trend for men, Louis Vuitton sold them at the price of $2.553, when the garment its self does not go more than $77 (eNCA, 2017).
This incident made local designers to question if Louis Vuitton ought to benefitting from the Basotho blanket or whether this is robbery or not. Some people that are opposed to cultural appropriation believe the problem is that the originators of the designs do not get credit or financial compensation for their creations. “African artists are also artists and designers. W also have names. It is not just something blank that everyone has the right to come and take. So I think we are angry because we feel exploited. It’s not just that they are inspired by us. That’s a compliment, but you need to take it a bit further and involve us otherwise its theft”, a well-known designer, Maria McCloy said (Kiunguyu, 2017). Yet, others imply that many items we believe are originated from Africa, could possibly have origins from other parts of the world. As that coat became a trend, another fashion designer, Thabo Makhetha, who is originally from Lesotho, questioned why modern people forget about their cultural traditions, and she asked “why is it that when we leave home and we move into the cities we tend to leave our culture behind?” (BBC News, 2019). This was something that motivated her to create her collection and thus, the intention of her designs was to keep the African fabric/patterns alive.
From her interview, Ms. Makhetha tries to pass on that fashion houses do not collaborate with the local creators of the cultural items whom they got inspired and that needs to change by giving them credit or involving them in the process. (BBC News, 2019). It is not the first time that Louis Vuitton was accused of appropriating sacred garments, as in 2012 the company released a new Spring/Summer men’s collection ‘inspired’ by the Maasai tribe (OkayAfrica, 2017) and their traditional and important blanket, Shuka. There is also the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative group known as ‘M.I.P.I.’ which is created to challenge organizations and big brands introducing to, or copying the tribe’s signature without an authorized agreement. Like Burberry has the privilege to copyright and trademark its noteworthy check, so too the Maasai ought to have the option to ensure its traditional designs. But regarding the tries, it continues to struggle to keep an ethical business model. The M.I.P.I.’s aim is to bring back the cultural brand to their owners and accrue the compensation in its deserved. In fact, they are so ahead with how much the Maasai culture worths, they found out approximately 80 companies are violating the culture’s signature and Maasai people should receive 10 million fees each year (The Independent, 2017). The list goes on with Stella McCourtney, in 2013, coming up with the Tote plastic bags, with plaid designs known in West Africa as ‘Ghana Must Go Bags’. After her bag’s line, large retailers such as ZARA and Toposhop, began to sell similar cheaper bags made in China which were known as ‘China Town Chic’ or ‘Migrant Worker Chic’ (OkayAfrica, 2017).
The history of the particular bags began in 1983 with Nigeria expelling two million undocumented immigrants with half of them being from Ghana. The plaided bags were used to pack the immigrants’ belongings and after all these years they are still a symbol of forbiddance and prejudice (Lawal, n.d.). Valentino with his spring 2013 collection with his theme being ‘Wild, Tribal Africa’ started a fiasco. Regarding the garments that were designed with tribal patterns, he used fewer than 10 dark skin models and all of them wore cornrow buns (FERNANDEZ, 2015). Dashiki garment is a big part of African culture with its colourful print called ‘Angelina’. The word Dashiki comes from ‘Dashinki’ or ‘da ciki’ which means ‘shirt’ in West African’s languages, Yoruba and Hausa. Dashikis are unisex shirts were African people wear during ‘Black History Month’, ‘Kwanzaa’, and many more Afrocentric cultural events. Since the late 60s we can still see many African-Americans embracing their roots and promoting ‘Black Pride’ by wearing these colourful shirts (Co, 2016). But in 2015 Elle Canada posted a story, promoting forever 21’s shirts as ‘‘dashikis are the new caftans’’. Not only Elle promoted a historical shirt with a significant meaning to their people as a ‘new trend’, but the big retailer brand did not even call them dashikis (Klein, 2015). Appropriation doesn’t seem only in garments and accessorize but in make-up and hairstyling as well. Marc Jacobs being inspired from the cybergoths he used dreadlocks to style his models in 2016 for his Summer/Spring 2017 collection. Critics found the particular style problematic as very few of his models were dark skinned.
With his respond to the critics saying, “All who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race of skin colour wearing their hair in a particular style or manner – funny you don’t criticize women of colour for straightening their hair.” His response caused a big scandal in the social media with many of his followers responding negatively. After his last post, it seemed that the fashion designer gave it a bit of more thought and apologise about his lack of sensitivity, “I apologize for the lack of sensitivity unintentionally expressed by my brevity…” (Cadogan, 2018). But in fashion there is not only appropriation in fashion shows from well-known designers as we can see that the Numéro magazine, a French magazine, used a white model for a photoshoot with the theme ‘African Queen’. The photoshoot not only was for an African Queen but it was represented with the blonde model, Ondria Hardin, dressed with traditional printed garments and by using bronzer the makeup artist made her look black. Jezebel Beck, a freelance writer, mentioned the model’s agency represents several black models so there was no excuse not to employ a black model rather than a white. She also added, “It’s impossible to look at this and not ache for young women of colour who want to pursue careers in modeling. If jobs for “African Queen” photo spreads aren’t going to black women, what hope is there?” (London and De Lacey, 2013).
How appropriation can be easily spread through media and how much impact can the industry have on people can be seemed from Kylie Jenner. The 22 years old woman is known for ‘starting the trend’ for fuller lips, as she put lip-fillers to hers, leaving the women who were born with big full lips being offended and outraged. The fact that black people been ridiculed for their big characteristics and how easily a white rich girl make it become a trend by considering it attractive, is something to worry about while living in the 21st century (Carter, 2015). The huge ‘trend’ Kylie Jenner ‘started’ left many women trying to find new ways to get their lips done, as well with a lot of make-up brands taking this advantage and coming up with lip plumbers and lip suckers. Another pop super star started a big buzz as she chose to go at the Givenchy Automn/Winter 2015 show, with the ‘baby hairs’ style that the black culture made it glorious to the runways. This was not the first time she was accused of appropriation as in most of her videoclips she uses ‘costumes’ representing different cultures, and in a particular music video she realized, called ‘This is how we do it’, she was presented with rainbow-coloured cornrows and gelled baby hair (Monaé, 2015). Lastly, the pop-culture Honey-G, who was a contestant in the X-Factor 2016, is calling herself a victim of discrimination as critics blaming her for ‘cultural appropriation’ and people claim she steals from black culture. Honey-G’s performances labelled as modern-day blackface and the rape of black culture. Most people believe she is always in performance mode, while she referencing to different respected hip-hop acts like N.W.A as a badge of honor and always appearing with baggy jeans, baseball cups and dark glasses which she never takes off.
On her interview on BBC 4 Radio, she claims all these people they spend all their time thinking about her and what she wears and they forget to focus on the love of music which is what she is all about. By feeling harassed she compared herself as she had the same discrimination as the N.W.A group had from the police while they were minding their own business, leaving Mobeen Azhar arguing how she can compare these two incidents as the same and this is why people get offensive of her, saying, “Even that in it self can be offensive because the argument would be that if you comparing yourself to the struggles that people like, N.W.A, the songs they wrote and the songs that they sing came from a place of struggle. So many people were offended by you would say you are cherry picking and taking from experiences that are not yours and that as British white middle class woman that is not your perspective to do that and it is wrong to do that”, although Honey-G after this argue believes it is not her problem that people are offended (Offence, Power and Progress, 2017). Being in one of her concerts, Mobeen Azhar observed that the que is crowded almost with only parents and their children, and all of the people are white. Which this make it seem that Honey-G picking this path of Hip-Hop as it is a genre that is selling in the last few decades. Although, there are cases which are not considered appropriation or at least wouldn’t have to be considered. Unlike Honey-G, Eminem comes from a specific and a particular background, similar to black cultures’ discriminations, as in hip-hop the white privilege does not work anymore when “America accepted hip-hop as authentic expression of ghetto existence. The story has been reversed” (Boyd, 2001).
In 2000, the era of hip-hop, white boys could not enter the world of hip-hop without passes, not even middle-class black people could without a ghetto pass. Eminem, unlike Vanilla Ice who didn’t even had the street credibility which was the most important thing you needed to be truly accepted in hip-hop, he had the help of Dr. Dre for his ghetto passing in the world of hip-hop. With not only producing Eminem’s songs, Dr. Dre was also the founder of the Aftermath records, so he was making money off of him, and many believed it was about time black people start making money out of white people. But when it comes to his attitude, Eminem bows down to black culture and he never tried to deny how much he owes to the culture while he is aware he succeed because of his skin colour, as he says in the lyrics of one of his song ‘White America‘, “If I was black I woulda sold half” (White America, 2002). Again, Eminem was always authentic and never denied from where he’s coming from compared to Vanilla Ice, who to market his and gain respect from his audience and black culture, Vanilla Ice advertised his engagement with drugs and gangs. This shows a disturbing stereotypical racism against black culture referring it with crime. But it was later on that they found the rapper was raised in a wealthy life in Dallas’ suburbs. With Mickey Hess explaining the lyrics of hip-hop narrating the autobiography of black artists’ struggles in the society against racism. With the discover of Vanilla Ice’s authenticity he dropped dramatically from the top as he was “another ‘good looking white kid [who] borrows a black sound and style… and walks off with the prize.’” Same as Elvis who stole Rock and Roll from the African-Americans (Young, 2016).
Antithetically, Marchall (Eminem) did not pretend to be someone he wasn’t, while his lyrics speak about the low-class neighbourhood he is coming from and the challenges and difficulties he faced through his journey in life. Furthermore, the appreciation he has in the early days of hip-hop, its bind with the black community, and the understanding of race in hip-hop music and the society reconsidered the appearance of whiteness in this genre (Young, 2016). Philipp Plein shows another way of appreciation of African culture as in his Spring/Summer 2018 runway Nicki Minaj took him out of the list of the designers that appropriating the culture. With Nicki Minaj’s statement during his show, we can see from first-hand an opinion from a person who is coming from this culture herself. ‘Thank you, Philipp Plein, for including our culture,’ Minaj said. ‘Designers get really big and really rich off of our culture, and then you don’t see a motherf-ker that look anything like us in the front row half the time. So, let’s make some noise for Philipp Plein tonight.’ (Lang, 2017). Kendal Jenner is another type of not appropriating the black culture even though she was accused for it for one of her photoshoots with American Vogue.
The model was styled with teased curled hair which seemed as afro. Black activists blamed the magazine for not hiring actual black models for the photoshoot rather than copying their cultural afro hair. This left the American magazine apologising; however, the look was supposed to be a modernize of ‘the Gipsy girl’ sketches, a personification of the ideal of feminine attractiveness in the Edwardian era. In this case the magazine was unfairly accused for cultural appropriation of the African culture and there was no need to apologise for their actions (Moir, 2018). Charlie Hides, a drug queen known from her impersonations of different celebrities. In 2015 she decides to stop playing a character she did for 14 years, Laquisha Jonz. The reason behind that, was because of a petition that called his persona’s representation as ‘blackface’ and @a recist act based on misogynist stereotypes of black working-class women” (RuPaul’s Drag Race Wiki, n.d.). The petition started when somebody saw a poster without seeing the show or knowing anything about the character and got offended. As Chalrie Hides mentioned at his interview, in the 14 years of Laquisha’s act, he never had any complaints. Why I find Charlie’s acts as an appreciation for African culture by the reason she acknowledges the sensitivity of the issue and the last thing he wants is to upset and offend people due to his acts, so he apologized profusely. By carrying on, he mentions, and I quote, “There is prejudice in the world, and there’s real racism in the world and the last thing I want to do is contribute to real problems… What’s my pain compared to others? I have never been racially profiled, I’ve never been pulled over and frisked and searched, or denied housing” (West, 2017).
Dana Schutz’s painting ‘Open Casket’ was an abstract version of, Emmett Till’s photograph, from his funeral, an African-American boy who’ve been kidnapped and beaten to death by two white men in 1955. With his mother’s wish to do the funeral with an open casket so his battered face could show the horrible brutality of society. But the painting took another turn as the white artist’s painting created a protest against, not of its aesthetic, but of a more racial policy. With Ms. Black sending an open letter to the administrations with 47 curators and critics who co-signed it, she had the opposite opinion about the painting, asking not only to take away the painting from the museum but to destroy it as well, adding it is unacceptable for white people to turn black suffering into profit and fun. Dana Schutz nonetheless does not have her painting for sale and certainly she understands the seriousness and the sensitivity of the specific subject, and in her defence she stated, “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America, but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension” (Speidel, 2017).
Moreover, at the same time as Ms. Black tries to find her rights against Dana Schutz, Timothy Tyson, a white writer, was selling his book ‘The blood of Emmett Till’ which with “no doubt [is] written for profit, if not [for] fun” (Beauchamp, 2017). We think because we live in the 21st century, appropriation is not a problem anymore, but a lot of black people have a problem with their culture not be respected yet, as it should be. Ms Thabo Maketha’s opinion, as a local designer from Cape Town City, is that as a fact, a lot of fashion designers’ brands who are taking elements from different cultures they don’t collaborate with the people of those cultures and that need to change (BBC News, 2017). Of course, she thinks there is a positive part to this, European designers are interested an African and are taking inspiration, as this shows Africa has more to give to the world from what people believe. But the way they use it, has a negative impact to Africa, as the brands are profiting from them without collaborating with local people who, in fact, produce these products. That’s one way to put it. But, Yo Zushi, a British-Japanese singer-songwriter, made a good point as well in one of his articles in Newstateman magazine. With Iggy Azalea ‘blackfacing’ her way to the top, left Azealia Banks, African-American rapper, suggesting Iggy’s ‘cultural smudging’ was another careless case of cross-racial stealing, that white people took from black genre “Fuck you. Y’all don’t really own shit… not even the shit you created for yourself.” (Zushi, 2015).
As Zushi express it is without a doubt correct to have ‘racial undercurrents’ as she is involved in an industry that prefers white stars selling black elements. Yet, she was correct as well when she said ‘Y’all don’t really own shit…”. When it comes to great movements in culture, the racial intruder is not wrong. No one can, or should “own” hip-hop, cornrows or the right to wear warbonnets or a kimono (Zushi, 2015). Also, she mentions law professor Susan Scafidi’s explanation about appropriation “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission” (Zushi, 2015). More worrying is the fact that it put culture and traditions into a pen of a moral ownership much the same as copyrighting. This seems okay for a legalistic perspective, but as humans we desire to get inspiration for what we like and create new things out of it. Concluding, as we know black fashion played a very important role in black culture, with their style being a way to get through Britain during the history of diaspora in Britain. That is why they feel threaten and offended whenever they “steal” their fashion from them.
Black people’s heritage and culture has a very important history for them which are not letting it to be forgotten. Even though they born and raised in other countries, they still want to take and use parts of their culture and heritage as they are proud about their origins. For us, not to appropriate their culture when we want to take inspiration from the, we need to know their history and the background they are coming from. As Ms. Makhetha said, it is okay to be inspired by them, as it is a way of expressing our admiration and appreciation for them, but always do it in a respectful way. For instance, when Louis Vuitton took Basotho blankets, they could collaborate with local designers who actually created these significant patterns and credit them on their work. But sometimes there are cases which we cannot control appropriation and if people will use their inspirations in ways we do not like. We live in a world that throughout the years people, because of the wars, the diaspora, spread all over the planet and with them they took their culture as well.
Due to that fact, it is really difficult not having people adapting others’ habits and ways of expressing their selves, even this is because of their ideologies or because of their cultural believes. That’s why we need to be more concern about others’ feelings when it comes to cultures and learn to identify the difference between appreciation and appropriation. Still, there are times when people exaggerating those kinds of issues when in reality, everyone appropriates other cultures in one way or in other way, from the music we listening, fashion, movies to the shish kebab or the tortilla chips we are eating. Some may call that appreciating, some others call that appropriation. So, is it really a difference between these two words? Can we, in any way, stop appropriating and start appreciating other cultures? The world became so complicated that there always will be the one person that will transform and absorb a culture into some other persons’ folklore either we like it or not – and when that happens, we have a limited claim to that folklore, because as much as it is ours it become theirs as well. “Sometimes, we have to let culture do its thing” (Zushi, 2015).
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