Culturally inappropriate

Culturally Inappropriate - Rocstardinosaurpirateprincess

Halloween has been and gone, and with it, the annual discussion over inappropriate costuming. Each year, the discussion gets a little louder, a little clearer. Each year the people going “this is not ok” grow in number, and the angry people who want to wear whatever they like get a little more angry and defensive.

not a costume MexicoI have to admit, when I first came across the “culture, not a costume” campaign, I rejected it. I was like “oh come on, it’s just a COSTUME. It’s just Halloween. It’s just a bit of fun”. I thought on it, and I started to realise that me saying “it’s just a bit of fun” about someone doing fancy dress of another person’s culture is uncomfortably close to a man telling me that street harassment is “just a compliment.” And “harmless” and “just how men are.”

I know what it’s like if I – a woman – talk to a man and tell him of sexism I experience, how deeply frustrating, upsetting and often offensive it is when he tells me that my experience of sexism is invalid or wrong. As a white British person, with all the privilege and baggage that brings, I need to apply the same understanding when someone of another culture goes “Mate, this is not ok. Actually I am uncomfortable about this. Please can you listen?”

I’ve been a bit wary of speaking out about Cultural Appropriation for two reasons. One: I’m white and I don’t want to talk over the voices of people from other cultures or backgrounds.  Two: there because there is no other topic more likely to cause Big Rows amongst friends and loved ones, and I find it hard work to be at odds with people with whom I am used to finding common cause. But I have not written for a long time, this has been buzzing around in my head for an even longer time, and so it’s time for me to try to set down how I feel and what I try to do as a privileged white British person when it comes to cultural appropriation, and perhaps next time there’s a Big Row about it I can just copy and paste this instead of having the same Big Row forever.

So. Cultural Appropriation. What is it? Basically, no one can quite agree. If you google it you’ll get all sorts of different interpretations, and all sorts of questions over what it is. Is THIS cultural appropriation? Is THAT cultural appropriation? Is it still appropriation if I REALLY LIKE it?  Is it still appropriation if everyone is doing it?

I think one of the reasons there is so much confusion is simply because cultural appropriation is not simple. It’s really complicated. The concept of “culture” is complicated. I think it’s especially problematic for us white British people because of our Colonialist/British Empire history we’re so used to seeing a culture we like and just taking it without reference to how the people of that culture may have felt. That’s why I think it’s really important that we consider our actions in the light of being privileged to be able toI couldn't find the artist to credit. If this is yours, please tell me. pick and choose what cultural aspects we like/desire.

A friend of mine is from Mexico. Every Halloween she endures people co-opting her cultural heritage for their costume.  She’s been getting increasingly frustrated at the growing number of people each year using Dias de La Muertos imagery – Calavera  in particular – in the Halloween costumes. She said she feels like she can’t even use imagery from her own culture because “everyone else is doing it”.  At this point, I must confess to doing a “sugar skull” makeup on myself years ago. I am not going to try to defend it. It was for my friend’s band’s gig on the Day of the Dead itself. I have long admired the imagery of Dia, I’d done a little reading, I thought it would be fun and that I’d look pretty. This, people, is the very essence of appropriation. I was using the imagery of someone else’s culture, of a country to which I’d never been, because I thought it “looked pretty”. I could kid myself that it was “cultural appreciation“, because I “read about it” and “I really want to go to Mexico some day”; but no. Really. If you are literally just taking one aspect of someone’s culture, something of cultural, religious and historical significance, and you are taking it just because you think it’s pretty? That is cultural appropriation. Pure and simple. Sorry, but it is. I was using something that was not mine, purely to satisfy my own self-expression.

I do love Mexican culture; it fascinates me. I really would like to go there. I love Mexican art. The history of Mexico is fascinating. None of that gives me the right to use the imagery for my own personal satisfaction.

The internet and social media have been both a blessing and a curse for cultures subject to appropriation. There is so much greater access to information and resources that more people can access other cultures easier than ever before. And the more the (white) mainstream know about a culture, the more likely they are to want to use it and to see it as their right to use it. And yet, that same social media is what is enabling marginalised voices that have been unheard for years going “this is not ok” to be heard now.

It’s an interesting paradox; as minority voices become louder and their culture becomes more visible, the mainstream moves from ignoring or suppressing minority culture to appropriating and homogenising it and calling it “appreciation”.

Image Credit: Sara Alfageeh
Image Credit: Sara Alfageeh

Where is that line between appreciation, personal artistic references and actual appropriation? I still haven’t worked it out. I reckon most of us haven’t worked that out – and that’s fine. Because it’s still such a new topic, such a new concept, it’s ok, and reasonable, that we don’t necessarily have all the answers. What’s important is that we’re asking the question in the first place, ans being prepared for an answer we might not like. That we’re going “is this cultural appropriation?” and – crucially – listening when someone says “uh, I kind of think it might be”. The fact that the debate is even happening is important – as this wasn’t a conversation people were having in the mainstream ten years ago.

But once you start asking that question, you find yourself asking it all the time. For example you could argue that the whole history of tattooing is cultural appropriation. What about if you go on holiday to South Africa and you buy a shirt in a beautiful African tribal print, made by a woman of that tribe, selling it at a market in order to support herself and her family, Is THAT cultural appropriation? Personally, I would say no. Now, if you walked into, say, H&M or American Apparel and see some £40 leggings with a facsimile of an African tribal print? I would say that IS cultural appropriation. That’s a big corporation directly profiting from artefacts of a marginalised culture. But then that’s my answer, and I am a white British woman, is it my place to say what is appropriation of African culture and what isn’t?

I have a Day of the Dead skull box my friend gave me. It’s really cute, pink & purple & sparkly. She bought it for me because she knows I love pink and purple and sparkles and skulls and Mexican imagery. But it’s from Claire’s Accessories. Ten years ago I would have bought it for myself without a second thought. Nowadays, when I look at it, as cute as it is, I can’t help but feel that it’s not right for Claire’s Accessories to be profiting off an item which is ripping of another culture’s sacred event.

Amandla Stenberg (Hunger Games)




My- perhaps rather simplistic – take on it is that if you really enjoy a particular culture and their artwork, then you make sure you purchase art/items/fashion from someone of that culture, rather than buying similar tat from, say, Claire’s Accessories who have just ripped off cultural designs for profit (and actually have a rather suspect history of ripping off other designers work, too…)

So if you care at all about the concept, and if you believe that cultural appropriation is actually A Thing and one you would like to try to avoid it, how can you go about it, when what cultural appropriation even is is so hard to define and capture?

Questions that one needs to ask oneself before one engages in a practice or uses images or elements which originate from  a culture not your own are:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • Do I understand the cultural significance of this ritual or practice and does my engaging in this practice for my own personal desire infringe on elements of that significance?
  • Is this profiting someone of the culture, or is someone not of the culture profiting by use of their cultural elements?
  • Does this actively contribute towards increasing harmful stereotypes or oppression of this culture or its people?
  • If someone of this culture asks me about it at a later point, what is my answer?

I’m not “scared” of buying things or of taking inspiration from other cultures. At the same time I want to respect other cultures by not consuming goods or products which have been ” ripped off” other cultures, or using something which has significance to an oppressed minority just because I think it’s cute. I am certainly not down with personally benefiting from something while simultaneously participating in an activity which oppresses others.

I can’t defend my Dias makeup, or my tribal tattoos (which are in the process of being covered up by something much more personal.) I didn’t know any better. Now I do know better, and know that as a product of a white dominant former empire I have a responsibility to consider carefully before I consume or borrow from another culture, to not allow companies or organisations to profit from oppression or cultural appropriation, and to be considerate and thoughtful rather than getting angry and defensive when someone says “Mate. This is not ok.”

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  1. I agree with your take on this issue. On the art course I am doing, we were taught to make a piece of mixed media art using dream catcher imagery but I felt uncomfortable doing so because I have no personal connection to Native American culture. I, therefore, did something else using the techniques but not the imagery. I used it as a learning opportunity for my kids by opening up with them the discussion about why I chose not to appropriate symbolism from another culture.

  2. That is a well constructed article, but it raises lots of issues the deeper you read it. I support your views overall, but it made me go digging in my wardrobe.

    How would we feel if the Scots reclaimed tartan (plaid) and we no longer bought it except from Edinburgh Woollen Mills or the Inverness Highland House of Fraser? It is a universally accepted design these days. I have two kilted skirts in my wardrobe and I just checked both. One was Debenhams and made in China and the other doesn’t say the shop, but was made in Poland! Lots of people with no Highland connection get married in kilts these days.

    There is, of course, the aspect that Scotland may improve its tourism by having its national dress spread around the world and might not appreciate people stopping wearing it for cultural appropriation reasons. I suppose there are different levels of appropriation. I also have a lovely fringed, leather, cowgirl skirt which was made in Italy! I am not sure that wearing it is appropriating the Native North American culture. I like it because it is sexy and the fringe moves nicely. Where do we draw the line? If you are not a Princess, Rockstar, Dinosaur or Pirate, should you stop using it as an on-line identity. LOL. Of course not in my opinion.

    On the Halloween front: what the hell has Mexican dress, Native American dress or other non-spooky dress got to do with Halloween. Skulls, dripping blood, witches hats, broomsticks, deathly white faces and frightening masks are what it should be about. The campaign article (the one you get to by clicking the image) indicates that in America, at least, the outfits are no longer trying to be scary, but are morphing into something unrecognisable. Interesting.

    As I say, reading this article made me think about the subject so it probably achieved its objective. Excellent, but let’s not throw the demon baby out with the bath of blood!

  3. I am American, white, and female, and I am fortunate to have been raised with few cultural prejudices. As I get older, I find that the races and places I am connected with, are not my own necessarily, especially in the context of this article. However, I grew up in New Mexico, my dad was a Flamenco Guitarist of some note, and I love that culture, I feel it deep in my bones. I respect it, them, and I understand that even though I love them, I am not of them. I have 1/2 brothers who are half Jewish, I have close friends and loved ones and am a great fan of the many wonderful, humorous, intellectual, and artistic contributions to the world of which they are a part, and I am not. My oldest three children are 1/2 Hawaiian, another culture brutalized, murdered, and one that is still trying to get it’s feet back on the ground. I am not offended by Halloween costumes. I am offended by those who tip-toe around cultural bigotry without understanding what it is they are tentatively ashamed of. Be good, don’t act good.

  4. I’m so confused! I do agree with your article mostly, but it seems this is all just about people being a bit too sensitive (yes, that’s invalidating, I agree) and too “staking a claim” to something. I am the type of person who will listen, understand and validate if someone says to me “that makes me uncomfortable” as I respect everyone’s personhood and humanness. I find I need validation and because of that, so does everyone else – it’s a human need as much as food, water and air. But, I feel we are all human regardless of our heritage and why do we have to define ourselves so much? So, for example, as an American, I’m wondering if it’s culturally offensive to British people if I have a cup of tea in the afternoon? Do the British have claim on that? Why do the Japanese have claim on red dragons? What if a 5 year old draws a red dragon in her kindergarten art class? Is that wrong? What about Irish Shamrocks? Should my Irish husband be offended by the use of the good luck charm by non-Irish people? Should Lucky Charms cereal be taken off the market? Can my husband never ever wear a Hawaiian shirt again? Where does it end? On the other hand, if I use someone’s cultural icons, doesn’t that mean there’s a bit of respect and reverence in my actions?

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