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February 23, 2017
The African-American History Month commemorations are taking place all over the United States during the entire month of February. There is no better way to celebrate the deeds of African-American ancestors and their heritage, other than talking about the fine line between cultural appreciation and appropriation.
The use of objects and symbols identified with black culture, without any in-depth reflection about its meaning to the group of people it belongs to, rekindles the debate about what cultural appropriation means. Should we celebrate African-American History Month? Definitely. However, should we honor such unique and diverse heritage? Not by mindlessly “borrowing” elements of its culture as fashion statements.
Fashion appropriation of cultural elements has become a recurrent topic in the past few years, resurfacing every now and then with heated debates on social media.
It is very common to see divergence on the matter, with opinions becoming especially polarized in the commentary section of news sites and social media posts.
On one side, individuals are being demonized for using props that originally belong to a culture other than their own. On the other side, there is the belief that cultural appropriation doesn’t even exist. This is where the problem lies.
The debate about cultural appropriation shouldn’t be so shallow. It shouldn’t be pointing fingers to individuals and deciding who can wear a head wrap or dreadlocks in their hair. Instead, it should be focused on how cultural appropriation happens and why it can be seen as detrimental to cultural traditions of a particular group.
Cultural appropriation is not simply the process of appreciating or borrowing an element from another culture. Appropriation is a systemic problem. It is a matter of racism, ethnocentrism, capitalism and the use other institutions, like the fashion industry, which makes of items that are unique to the culture of a minority group.
The phenomenon begins to happen when a historically dominant social stratum marginalizes an ethnicity, religion or culture, making its symbols and practices to be considered distasteful to the eyes society. It eventually ends up forcing the marginalized group to abandon such practices as a way of adjusting, either in an attempt to suffer less prejudice or to feel less ashamed about it.
Appropriation then takes place when people re-signify those practices, elements, symbols and objects that were previously condemned, trying to make them attractive to the majority of the population only to make a profit on it. In this process, the whole symbolic essence of the elements lost and it becomes object of desire, more and more expensive and inaccessible to those who were previously marginalized for expressing the very same culture.
However, the fact that braided hair is considered fashionable and head wraps are available in department stores while stamped on magazine covers does not mean more rights or respect for the African-American population.
A major problem of borrowing elements of non-dominant cultures and adopting them in a decontextualized way is that the people who make the appropriation benefit from the aspects they deem ‘interesting’ in a culture however, they are ignoring the real meanings of those elements, while the members of that culture still have to deal with oppression daily.
When a person of color wears a head wrap on the street, people quickly point and judge. At the same time, a white person with the same accessory is seen as modern.
There is a systemic endorsement for the use of these elements by white people that is reinforced by the media and advertising. This fashion-driven popularization of ethnic elements takes all the symbols of a culture out of context. That’s what defines it as cultural appropriation, instead of appreciation: the undue adoption of specific elements of one culture by members belonging to another.
There is a very thin line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation and exchange. Cultural exchange is a natural and very frequent phenomenon while, cultural appropriation is a very problematic process that needs to be better understood.
For that reason, when borrowing elements of another culture, we have to consider the impact of our actions in the life of the people from that culture. Appropriation gives an enormous margin for elements of a culture to be made trivial and stereotyped. To avoid that, we need not only to try to learn to accept different cultures, but to respect the sanctity of its elements and avoid using it mindlessly or out of context.