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From cultural appropriation to cultural appreciation: Are you crossing the line?

IMAGE VIA Réalisation Par
WORDS BY Denise Nicole Green and Susan B. Kaiser

A handy guide.

This is an edited extract from chapter nine of ‘The Dangers of Fashion’, get the book here.

While cultural appropriation has long been part of the fashion system, our theoretical, political, and ideological understandings of the term are ever-evolving.

We often find cultural appropriation entangled with terms like cultural borrowing, cultural hybridity, cultural exchange, cultural appreciation, cultural inspiration, and strategic anti-essentialism.

Disentangling some of these terms, and discussing their key differences, brings about a more nuanced understanding of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation

The most basic definition of cultural appropriation is the taking of aesthetic or material elements from another culture by someone who is not a member of that culture without giving credit or profit.

The “taking” is not unlike stealing or plagiarizing – it is often done without permission and/or acknowledgment (like one would use a citation in an academic paper).

Typically, those stealing design elements or ideas profit from them, while the culture of origin makes no profit and may be humiliated, disrespected, or harmed through the process.

Cultural appropriation is possible because the “taker” is typically in a position of power, whereas those who are taken from may not have easy access to legal recourse or enforcement of requital.

Appropriation is also dangerous and offensive because it tends to be culturally insensitive and reduces a culture to an aesthetic expression or fashion statement that can be bought and sold.

Cultural exchange

Cultural exchange is often defined as a respectful and mutual interchange – that is, both giving and receiving – between cultures. The line that demarcates cultural exchange from cultural appropriation is a nebulous one because of power.

Is it possible to have a truly fair, equitable exchange? Power dynamics make this very challenging. In recent years, the term “collaboration” has stood in for cultural exchange.

Examples include the 2015 collaboration between Metis artist Christi Belcourt and Valentino, Phillip Lim’s spring 2016 campaign led by Ethiopian model Liya Kebede, and a 2011 sari collection that was a collaboration between Hermes and Sunita Kumar, a Kolkata-based designer.

These collaborations are not black and white and have been criticised as examples of “tokenism,” like the Belcourt-Valentino collaboration, which was condemned as a way for Valentino to legitimise its appropriation of Native American elements by name-dropping Belcourt (Metcalfe, 2017).

Cultural borrowing

Cultural borrowing is often framed as a more benign, well-intentioned version of cultural appropriation, in which harm to the origin community is not intended; however, the word “borrow” suggests that what was taken will ultimately be returned, and this has rarely, if ever, been the case.

Channels through which borrowing occurs are also power-laden; as Olufunmilayo Arewa, Professor of Law at UC Irvine, has argued, “borrowing may become appropriation when it reinforces historically exploitative relationships” and when the borrowing keeps source communities from “opportunities to control or benefit from their cultural material” (2016). In many ways, cultural borrowing is a dangerously euphemistic term for cultural appropriation.

Cultural appreciation

Another tricky term to define is cultural appreciation – once again, the line between appropriation and appreciation is blurry and entangled with power and informed by context (e.g., time, place, and identity politics therein).

In many ways, context is crucial. Blogger Dounia Tazi has used the example of wearing henna: when a white person wears henna to Coachella (as a fashion statement) it is a perfect example of appropriation; however, if that same white person is attending a South Asian wedding and is invited to have henna done within the context of this event, Tazi argues it is a form of cultural appreciation and a means of relating to and respecting the cultural event taking place (Tazi, 2015).

Cultural appreciation also suggests that the wearer or fashion designer has done their research – that they have educated themselves about the history and significance of the cultural expression. Typically, this kind of research results in an educated decision about when and where the use of a particular mode of dress or design element is appropriate and where and when it is offensive and damaging.

Some have argued that cultural appreciation helps to support indigenous arts in the global, capitalist marketplace. The “appreciators” of the first world are a privileged and wealthy market – a source of funding that may support the continuance of traditional arts around the world – but this market also increases prices.

For example, Amanda Denham (2017) recently conducted ethnographic fieldwork among Maya weavers in Guatemala and discovered that Indigenous women could no longer afford their hand-woven huipiles (blouses) and were instead wearing imported, synthetic knock-offs of their own designs in order to sell hand-woven huipiles to wealthy tourists.

Justification for cultural appropriation is often cloaked behind the guise of cultural appreciation and good intentions – in other words, cultural appreciation runs the risk of becoming a smokescreen that justifies appropriation.

Cultural inspiration

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, inspiration is the “process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially something creative.” This stimulation may come from a number of different realms and senses. Cultural inspiration refers to the process of being stimulated and influenced by other cultures, either current or of the past.

The language around “inspiration” has evolved since the late nineteenth century alongside the emergence of the named designer – that is, the singular individual who creates and is inspired, by the world around them.

Cultural hybridity

Hybridity typically refers to a cross between two things – that is, a kind of mixture – but one that does not necessarily result in an amalgamative erasure (e.g., “melting pot”).

In the field of cultural studies, the term “cultural hybridity” has sought to subvert the idea of cultures as bounded, separate entities; rather, the concept acknowledges cultural differences and distinctiveness alongside the inevitable influences and cross-fertilisation of ideas, aesthetics, and intersectional identities in a global world.

Cultural insensitivity

Understanding the impact and potential dangers of cultural appropriation is tightly bound to the concept of cultural insensitivity. Insensitivity may refer to the creation, promotion, and perpetuation of racial and ethnic stereotypes.

The Abercrombie & Fitch “Wong Brothers” T-shirt is a perfect example of cultural insensitivity: the design used cartoon caricature to exaggerate facial features, all the while perpetuating a stereotype of Chinese people as laundrymen (Helmreich, 1983). Cultural insensitivity may also refer to taking and re-presenting culturally sensitive forms – like sacred imagery – in fashion.

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