We live in what has become a globalised and multicultural world and with this comes cultural immersion, something that can raise important questions of exactly what culture is and the nature of it in a globalised context.
Without the rich and diverse cultures and customs throughout the world – what would the world look like?
The questions pertaining to culture are particularly pointed out when it is in respect of arguments of non-Indigenous use of Indigenous culture. Questions ask; what ‘culture’ do white people have? Is culture limited only to Indigenous Peoples? What are the elements of culture and who defines these?
These are questions that really can only be answered by those that don’t fall within the homogenous. Those that are within a non-white cultural group, and more often, a disadvantaged group within society. However, how do the disadvantaged and often voiceless, make their thoughts on culture heard?
Truth is – Indigenous people are particularly vulnerable to their culture being appropriated by non-Indigenous people and due to their minority status, most often are not listened to by the mainstream populace.
But we are speaking. Some are listening – more are not.
For those that are listening, cultural appropriation is understood as not being 'appreciation' and by large, is not okay. You are entitled to admire culture. You are entitled to engage with our culture if you do so respectfully. You are entitled to appreciate our culture. You are not entitled to appropriate our culture.
The fact that this needs to be said is demonstrative of the level of entitlement amongst non-Indigenous people throughout the world. When Indigenous people speak out against appropriation, they are responded to by non-Indigenous people with “but…” followed by explanations of appreciation, spiritual connection and other pseudo woke rubbish.
The fact that there is not enough respect or self-awareness among cultural appropriators to listen to Indigenous people who are taking the time to educate over and over. The literature and resources that underlines the problems in contemporary society underpinned by colonialism and non-Indigenous privilege are out there – for anyone and everyone to educate themselves – so any claims of ignorance are not acceptable in the instant information age.
Defining cultural appropriation is difficult, but here goes:
Cultural appropriation is most often perpetrated against minority groups, who are victims of oppression and have been historically exploited. It is the practice of taking of traditional knowledge, cultural artefacts, ceremony, iconography or other cultural intellectual property without consent and outside of cultural protocols. This can include the unauthorised use of another culture’s dress, dance, music, language, folklore, symbols, traditional medicine and religion.
There are countless examples of appropriation that we can see in our everyday lives, Native American headdresses used as fashion accessories, ‘Mummy businesses’ making dream catchers, advertisements on television telling us to “get tribal” with models wearing brightly coloured face paint, music artists dressing up as geishas, supposedly sophisticated designer labels releasing boomerangs and countless tourist souvenir stores with mass produced knock off Aboriginal art.
Why do we continue to see unabashed appropriation of culture? Because white people’s right to appropriate cultural icons and plagiarise to express themselves is more important than their obligation to show respect and follow cultural protocols.
Why do we continue to see unabashed appropriation of culture?
Is it because white people’s right to appropriate cultural icons and plagiarise to express themselves is more important than their obligation to show respect, follow cultural protocols or heaven forbid – understand the consequences of their actions?
Perhaps one of the most obvious and frustratingly used examples internationally is the Native American headdress. Native American headdresses are items for revered elders – they are a symbol of sacrifice and leadership and when a young girl wears these for “fashion” it is the height of disrespect and ignorance to Native American people.
Native American veteran and Midewewin Ogitchida Jim Petoskey says, “In our beliefs, those are earned. It would be equivalent to me wearing a Medal of Honour having not earned it” and he considers the use of it by non-Natives to be a demonstration of white privilege.
We see these being worn at music festivals, Halloween and fashion shows – all in a seemingly innocent attempt at boho fashion. This is not only 'not okay', it is unbelievably ignorant and disrespectful.
In Australia, we see the of misappropriation of our art, Indigenous traditional medicines being patented by large pharmaceutical companies and see mass imports of our appropriated art. We see women marketing themselves as spiritual music artists and playing the yidaki (didgeridoo).
So in a world where cultural richness and beauty abounds how can someone appreciate – and participate – the right way?
First and foremost – always understand the culture you are appreciating. Understand the items that are off limits and which ones you can use freely as homage to the culture’s beauty. There are plenty of ways to appreciate another group's culture without being disrespectful.
The fashion and beauty industry is one of the worst appropriators of culture, but some some can appreciate beautifully by purchasing art from traditional artists and by acknowledging the source of the art in such a way that it markets the art itself as well as the beautiful fashion.
Music artists too are often under fire for their cultural appropriation but what sets them apart is significant. Where Katy Perry will dress as a Geisha in what many condemn as her attempt at “yellow face” while singing a culturally contradictory song, music artist Rihanna was celebrated when she went to the 2015 Met Gala wearing an imperial yellow gown with thematically Asian embroidery. Rihanna did not wear the item in a wayward attempt at ‘appreciation', the gown itself was purchased from and raised the profile of Guo Pei, a Beijing-based Chinese couturier, during a themed event – ‘China – through the looking glass.’
The difference between appreciation and appropriation comes down to respect.
Appreciation is the purchase of Indigenous art from an Indigenous artist or reputable dealer with proceeds benefiting the community of the artist. Appreciation is going out to a Japanese restaurant and using chopsticks and enjoying the cuisine – again with proceeds benefiting the people sharing their culture and cuisine. Appreciation is engaging and participating in Aboriginal ceremony in which you may be afforded the honour of being smoked or painted up.
The appropriation of culture is widespread. The laws of intellectual property do little to inhibit this disrespectful practice – particularly where the appropriation is for profit.
While we will continue to point it out, it appears that non-Indigenous appropriators will continue to ignore the voices of Indigenous people and until such a time as there is a shift in consciousness where non-Indigenous people see and understand their privilege and how they have chosen to use it (ultimately to steal from a culture), little will change.
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