That time I participated in cultural appropriation…

Last week I was looking back over some photos from my time at college when I noticed a picture that made me stop in my tracks.  The picture was taken at a costume party in my second year at university.  For this particular occasion I was dressed as a geisha.  I’d swept my hair up into a smooth top-knot, I was wearing a satiny kimono-style robe and I’d applied white powder and overdrawn red lipstick.  The picture made me want to hang my head with shame.  Because in that moment I realised that I’d taken part in cultural appropriation when I chose to dress that way.

 

Cultural appropriation is an important topic, and something that I think about on a regular basis.  In case you’re unsure what I mean when I use the phrase “cultural appropriation”, here is a great article that explains it pretty well. But essentially cultural appropriation is “when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that is not their own”.  It is particularly prudent when the cultural aspects have religious or deep cultural significance, and/or when the person taking the cultural aspect is from a racial group which has a history of oppressing the group the culture is being taken from.

 

I mentioned that I think about cultural appropriation on a regular basis, and this is most often in context of the things I wear.  I love to express myself through fashion and there are a number of items in my closet which have been inspired by other cultures.  I even have items which have been given as gifts from friends overseas which have come from other countries, and which I now wear.  Whether or not me wearing these items counts as cultural appropriation is a muddy debate (and one which I’ve grappled with many times in my own mind).  But I am certain that my geisha costume was a definite example of cultural appropriation.

 

Now, when I first saw the photo, I tried to rationalize my behaviour.  I thought about my interest in geisha culture and how much reading and research I’ve done about the history of geisha and their practices.  I thought “well, perhaps the fact that I’m interested in geisha and that I know a lot about them makes it OK to dress as a geisha.  Maybe my costume was more of an homage to a culture I respect rather than an appropriation”.

 

But I still consider it to be an appropriation.  The clothing, hairstyle and makeup worn by a geisha is special.  It’s not something that just anyone gets to wear.  A woman has to go through years of difficult training before she is worthy to wear the geisha makeup or hairstyles.  Different geisha hairstyles have different meanings, and in some cases a geisha has to satisfy certain criteria before she is permitted to wear her hair a particular way.  I have undergone no such training, and although I am interested in this culture it is not MY culture.  I have not earned the right to dress like a geisha, and it was wrong of me to do so.

 

In contrast, I think about a time when I wore a kimono that I do not consider to be an appropriation.  Many years ago I visited the Immigration Museum in Melbourne and was treated to an exhibit led by two women from Japan.  At the end of the tour they showed us a number of traditional Japanese garments including kimono, and I was invited to come and try one on.  I don’t think of this experience as an appropriation for a number of reasons.  Firstly, I was invited by a member of the culture to wear the item.  Secondly, kimono are not generally an item that carries a certain status in that you don’t have to be of a particular class or hold a certain job or title to wear one. In this instance, I was not taking an item of special cultural significance, I was experiencing an aspect of a culture by invitation of two members of that culture.

 

I believe that cultural appropriation is something that’s important to think about, particularly in the context of fashion. There are a number of items that I have stopped wearing altogether because I am aware that they have particular cultural significance.  For example, I used to wear bindis on a regular basis and now I will not wear them at all.  While I don’t think that there is a need to completely cut out the wearing of anything that has come from another culture, I think it’s extremely important to consider the significance and history of those items and truly consider whether it’s appropriate to wear them.

 

So although I still wear items that have been inspired by other cultures, or even some clothes which have come directly from other cultures, I am much savvier about what I choose to wear.  I will not make the mistake of using another culture as a costume, and although I’m ashamed that i have done so in the past, I think it’s important to talk about it.  Because I believe that you have to own up to your mistakes in order to learn and move forward.  And I think I’ve come a long way since that night I donned a geisha costume, and I’d like to move even further towards being a person who is more compassionate and open, particularly when it comes to culture.

 

Have you participated in cultural appropriation?  Is it something that you think about when choosing what you wear?

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20 thoughts on “That time I participated in cultural appropriation…

  1. There was no reply button…We eat the thread? lol

    Anyway, I’m glad to see your views on it are that it is okay to wear things if you have an understanding or if they come from the source. I see SO MUCH of the idea of ‘oh, you can’t wear this thing at all’, and it makes me sad. Just the other day I saw a video where ethnic people were telling white people “instead of wearing x you should go to a museum or read x and just don’t wear the item” and that sort of exclusivity is horrific and perpetuates racism and cultural misunderstandings and just has all-around bad vibes. Exclusivity STARTS problems, riots, wars, and other horrid, horrid things.

    I think that the feminism paradox may be happening – an idea that starts off well, then some SJWs take it and make it into something hateful and weird. Cultural Appropriation seems to have gone from “understand before you use/wear” to the pelicans from Nemo yelling “mine” around their respective cultural things, at least in the mainstream American mindset in the same way feminism has gone from ‘equality’ to ‘weird dominatrix women who want men to suffer’ in same said mindset (it so bad in at least the Southern part of America that I now identify as an equal rights-ist in order to avoid confusion). Just goes to show that zealots in any case are the idiot family reunion cousins that make us pinch the bridges of our noses and squeeze our eyes shut in frustration. 🙂

  2. I totally agree with B above, I think almost all of us, if we flicked back through old photographs, would find examples of where we appropriated another culture. Heck, it was practically encouraged through my high school’s annual ‘International Day’ event! But in all honesty, while its message might not have been executed properly, the intentions behind it were completely pure. I’m not excusing it, but International Day’ encouraged us to adorn ourselves in the style of other cultures not only to pay respect, but as a means of educating one another about what their traditions and clothing actually meant.

    • That’s so awesome that your high school held an annual event to encourage learning about other cultures. I think that it’s so important to be open-minded and to educate ourselves about cultures other than our own. And truly, if your intentions are good and you do your best to be respectful and attentive then I think that’s really the best you can do.

  3. Really thought provoking, excellent post. While I would never wear something that was blatantly offensive or culturally insensitive, I must say, by and large, my current views on things largely mirror what A Life Most Kawaii said in her well stated comment. I believe that fashion is open to everyone and that we should be free to dress as please. So long as one is not committing a racist (or sexist, etc) act or mocking a culture in the process, I see it as a form of expressing respect and admiration for said culture, if you opt to weave one or more elements of their traditional (or current) attire into your wardrobe.

    ♥ Jessica

    • I definitely agree with you that fashion is open to everyone and we should feel encouraged to express ourselves through dress. And part of that self-expression may be incorporating items that are inspired by cultures that you admire or are interested in. But I think it’s also very important to consider the background and significance of the items that we choose to wear, and make an informed choice about whether it’s appropriate to wear certain items. And if you do choose to incorporate items of cultural significance into an outfit, that you do so in a respectful and informed manner.

    • Hmmm, that’s a good question. The idea of feathers on accessories is kind of a muddy area for me. I think it would depend on the specific piece. For example, I probably wouldn’t have a problem with a pair of earrings that have feathers threaded onto them, as (as far as I know) they have no particular cultural significance. However when you start to move towards headbands and hair accessories that resemble Native American war bonnets I draw a line there. I don’t think it’s appropriate to wear items like these. However, like I said it’s a muddy area. It’s really important to consider where the items came from, whether they are ‘inspired by” a particular cultural item and how closely they resemble the original. Also, as I mentioned in my post I think that you have to think about whether the item holds a special status within that culture. I.e can anyone wear it or do you have to hold a particular role or status to have access to the item. In the case of Native American war bonnets, they aren’t something that just anyone is allowed to wear. They signify a particular level of power and authority, and for that reason I don’t think it’s appropriate to wear items that resemble these.

  4. I am very passionate about this and have been meaning to blog about it myself! It’s such widely misunderstood concept and I find myself having to explain it to people all the time, often to white people who don’t particularly want to listen. It boggles my mind how ignorant people can be about some particular items like Native American war bonnets. It’s not cool or “edgy” to wear them, in fact it’s deeply offensive!
    I’m sure I’ve been culturally appropriative a lot in the past but that’s how we learn! I am now super careful, especially since I am into “kawaii” fashion. While there’s no special, cultural significance on most aspects of Japanese pop culture (after all it’s entire purpose is to be exchanged to make money), by being ignorant of its roots and where it comes from, you can still appropriate it. Like that time I saw a Lolita girl claim there was no point in knowing about the origins of Lolita fashion and didn’t care about Japan in the slightest. Ugghh.

    • I think it’s so important to learn about the backgrounds of fashion subcultures, particularly the ones that you are interested in participating in. If you know where the style has come from and how it originated I think that goes a long way towards circumventing the issue of appropriation.

      I’m also pretty shocked when I see how flippant some people are about certain items. While cultural appropriation has some grey areas, and there can be a lot of debate about what is and isn’t appropriation, there are some items that are clearly off limits in my opinion. And one such item is the Native American War bonnets. They have a deep cultural significance and they aren’t simply worn for show. I don’t think there is ever a time or place where it’s OK for a white person to wear one.

  5. I think 90% of us, if we all went through photos from our youth, would find that we did something like this. The important thing though is to see the error of our ways and learn from it! Which you have!

  6. I actually don’t believe strongly in cultural appropriation, and I realize how harsh that might sound, and that is so not my intention! I just believe that if you’re doing something because it’s something truly, deeply important to you, something that you love, have researched, respect, etc., then in most cases, it’s something you can do without worry. I actually read a story about how in Japan, you can go and get made up, make up and all, to look like a geisha for a day – it’s popular! It’s something that the geisha themselves do for those who visit.

    I think that a lot of what people worry about is coming from white SJW (social justice warriors) who are speaking on behalf of the people and cultures they are trying to protect. For instance, I have had people get furious with me, because I call myself an otaku (the Japanese word for geek, and a big part of Japanese geek culture.) Yet I talk with men and women from Japan who have 0 issue with me being otaku, and don’t understand why anyone would get offended.

    TL;DR: I think in most cases, there is a LOT that is okay, if it’s worn / done with respect, and knowledge, and because you’re deeply ingrained in that culture. I don’t have a prob with Halloween costumes, though many do, but that’s besides the point. Finally, I think, when in doubt, actually talk with someone who actually is involved with something you’re into – for instance, the people I’ve spoken with about being otaku. Don’t just listen to people in America, etc. who are trying to protect something that ISN’T their culture to begin with.

    • I think you make a great point here. It is so important to arm yourself with knowledge, and to research the cultures that you’re interested in. I agree that knowledge and respect go a long way towards dampening the negative effects of cultural appropriation. If you’re interested in the practices of another culture, by all means read about it and learn as much as you can. If possible, meet someone who belongs to that culture and get their take on it. In a lot of cases, people are excited to talk about their culture and share it with you if you show that you have genuine interest and a respect for their beliefs and way of doing things.

    • While I understand your reasoning, I have to respectfully point out that you are not correct in this instance. I can see you are white-passing – I won’t assume your ethnicity!! – which may be why you are flippant about cultural appropriation. It is important to respect cultures but not monopolise them or make them out to be a tourist attraction, nor should you wear items of significance for fashion (eg: Native American headdresses, bindis, noh masks etc). Respect. Don’t do it.

      Vanessa is right in that the kimono is often considered okay for foreigners to wear; this is still open for debate. Geisha “costumes” aren’t. The places you spoke of in your message are, simply, tourist traps. They aren’t run or organised by geishas and are very disrespectful to the incredibly difficult and intricate world of a geisha. It is a lifestyle, not a costume or simply a job. You also mention that you’ve been told it’s okay to be an otaku by Japanese people – it’s also important not to assume that if one person says it’s okay, that an entire culture says it’s okay. I personally struggle with “otaku” and “weeaboo” culture, as well as the incessant use of the word “kawaii”. It seems like a very one-sided view of Japan and a little bit patronising.

      (That said, there’s a bigger issue at play here, one that lends into a conversation about Japan and their own self image, politeness and the inherent homogeny of the country. They think you’re just as much a novelty as you think they are!)

      Long story short – it’s important to respect people and listen to them. If they say “please don’t do/wear that”, don’t do/wear that. We are all works in progress and you’re right, open dialogues and ask questions.

      • Thank you so much for framing your comment in such a respectful manner. It’s so awesome to see such open debate taking place, without resorting to mud slinging. I’m lucky to have such awesome readers.

        You touched on a very important point that I didn’t bring up: that of a representative of a culture not speaking for the entirety of that culture. While it’s true that some people may not have a problem with people wearing certain cultural items, there may be other people from the same cultural group that may find this very offensive.

        I think it’s a great idea to open a dialogue with someone who is from the culture that you are interested in, to learn more about the significance of the items that you wish to wear or use. And if you choose to wear an item with origins in another culture, remember to do so mindfully and respectfully. And part of that is realising that not everyone from a particular culture will feel the same way about an outsider wearing something that is significant to them. We are all different and we all hold different views, and it’s so important to be mindful of that.

      • “it’s also important not to assume that if one person says it’s okay, that an entire culture says it’s okay.”

        A quote from your argument that goes both ways. In my experience with people from other cultures, the SJW types screaming appropriation are the VAST minority. I can’t say I’ve ever met one of these “I have my offendy-pants ironed and ready” types in the wild. It is often the loudest mouths from every group that gets the most attention – correct or not. Exhibits A-ZZ: World History.

        “I can see you are white-passing – I won’t assume your ethnicity!! – which may be why you are flippant about cultural appropriation.”

        I also think you should know that the term “white-passive” is dismissive and rather rude. It is like saying “BE ethnic all you want, but if you don’t LOOK ethnic, you don’t count”. Also, assuming that because someone is white also makes them “flippant about cultural appropriation” for having an opinion that differs from yours is not exactly accepting, either. I love how calling a white or *shudder* “white-passing” person flippant or privileged isn’t considered an insult. Don’t pigeonhole, stereotype, etc…unless it is about white people?

        Do try, in future debates, to be respectful to all…even white people and ethnic people who may not appear quite as ethnic as you’d like us to be.

      • Also, *someone* is going to be offended by…well, pretty much everything. Steve Hughes does a BRILLIANT bit on this that explains my feelings on a lot of this perfectly and makes me laugh at myself and put things into perspective when I find myself offended by things, because we all do at one point or another, just some of us rather master it. I probably watch this video once a week just to remind myself how important it is. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ceS_jkKjIgo

    • I agree with this 1000% and have a LOT to say on the matter. I’ve kept it all in for a long time, but I have a feeling the readers here are more level-headed than a lot of the mainstream sites I lurk on, so here goes: While I am “white-passing” as it is rudely and dismissively called to those of us who aren’t white, but the world calls white, I’ve grown tired of this argument. When I see someone enjoying my culture, in any form, I am pretty stoked about it! Maybe they’ll fall in love with it! Maybe they’ll make it more widely-known as its own ethnicity and create more of an interest in my culture.

      I was raised just outside of a Native American reservation. While I am not Native, a lot of my friends and the people I grew up with were. I had the honor of working for a well-known flute maker and medicine man. I made flutes with him and made medicine bags and tribal jewelry with his wife. They VOLUNTARILY made their crafts to sell, not only in the US, but they also traveled out of the country on several occasions. Their *Livelihood* depended on people – mostly white people – buying their goods at craft fairs. Do you think they ever looked down on them for buying and wearing their items? NO. Did they consider it appropriation? NO. They were happy they were able to live their lives doing what they loved and sharing their culture and their crafts and they LOVED to see people wear their goods or play their flutes.

      I now live in an area with a very high Mexican population and a flea market that is almost all Mexican goods. Here, again, we have people who are *happy* when I ask about their clay cookware or their brightly-embroidered dresses. They are *happy* to share their culture and their culture’s fashion and happy that you are, by purchasing their goods, allowing their families to function. They are absolutely elated when I try to use my broken Spanish to help them place an order or buy from the vendors who don’t speak English. I’m not made fun of or accused of trying to be uppity or insulting them for speaking to them in their native tongue. To them, it is surprising and a welcome relief to see someone try to communicate with them instead of mumbling “‘Murica, speak English”.

      “Cultural Appropriation” is just appalling to me. It is basically a list of what white people shouldn’t be able to wear. A proverbial “look at, but don’t touch, that’s not for you, you’re not in that club”. I have seen, on three separate occasions during the Jenner/Kardashian Cornrow Watch of 2015, someone bring up that, as far back as known documented history goes, the Africans did not have a monopoly on scalp braids or corn rows – the Vikings and many other Scandinavian cultures wore them for just as far back – and that as well as any other historical fact is promptly ignored because white people Just Can Not Do The Things.

      It bothers me that no one can see that, instead of any sort of peace or middle-ground, things are turning to a world where white people are afraid to say they are white and are beginning to fear everything they say/do/wear/eat/photograph/read in fear they will be called posers or appropriators. White people (and yes, even us “white-passing” ones) are forced to hide our love for cultures or even the fact that we HAVE an ethnic culture if we’re “white-passing” – god, it makes my skin crawl to type that – because we’ll just be called “appropriating” or “posing”. Hasn’t anyone ever cracked a history book? This sort of sudden and harsh judgement of a particular race or group of people is how genocides start and genocide is NEVER okay. You don’t say “oh, your great-great-great grandfather killed or enslaved mine MAYBE, so I’ll just make you pay for all of it and then some”.

      Also, since when is the entire world living by the Catholic “sins of the fathers” rule? I’ve NEVER met a white person who has enslaved someone or personally oppressed someone. All of these videos circulating on the internet of “things (insert culture here) wants to ask/say to white people” are appallingly mean-spirited as were the shoe on the other foot, it wouldn’t be touted as racism. But, it is impossible to be racist to white people. I am of a recognized, albeit pretty small, ethnicity. I am “white-passing”, so the amount of white guilt that people have tried to lay on me over the years *for things I didn’t even do and was not alive for* is just astounding. I will defend equality and fairness for anyone of any color. I have been experienced prejudice from people of all colors and have experienced camaraderie from people of all colors. Amazing, loving, wonderful people come in all colors, as do asshats.

      I say experience and learn as much as you can about ALL cultures possible. I’m a shameless Otaku. And you know what? Before that, I had an obsession with Greece. Before that, Rome. Before that, Egypt. I’m just working my way around the globe to experience all I can in this life and that is A-OK and I hope others will do the same. We NEED to embrace and understand these cultures – not just from a distance, but to EXPERIENCE it for ourselves because they are beautiful, rich, vibrant, and make us grow and be better as a person.

      Why?

      It is simple. It is very hard to hate what you have an understanding of.

      • Thank you so much for your comment. I’m pleased to see that you took the time to read and comment carefully.

        You addressed a lot of issues in your comment, but one in particular is the idea of people of different cultures selling cultural items to people who are not a part of that culture. And also the importance of learning about other cultures. I would definitely agree with you on these point. When we’re considering cultural appropriation and talking about what does and doesn’t constitute appropriation, one of the most important considerations is the source of the item in question. For me, if a particular cultural item has been crafted or sold by a person who is from that culture, and they are giving permission and encouragement for people who aren’t necessarily members of that culture to use and enjoy those items, it is fine to do so. I have many items of clothing or jewelery that were bought from people from cultures different to mine that I don’t have a problem wearing, because I bought them directly from the source and I have an understanding of what those items mean. I am less inclined to feel comfortable wearing an item of cultural significance that I’ve purchased from, say, a chain store, because it doesn’t come with the same level of cultural exchange.

        I’m all for learning about and participating in other cultures. The world would be a terribly boring and xenophobic place if we all stayed in our own corners and didn’t share our cultures with others. Learning about other cultures fosters a deeper appreciation of items that you may then choose to adopt into your own life, and it’s more likely that you will use them in the proper way. I am less OK with people blindly wearing and using items from other cultures without learning about the significance behind them.

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