The issue represented by the title of this post is the one that first alerted me to the concept of cultural appropriation. I read an opinion piece in Maclean’s magazine suggesting that white people wearing headdresses at music festivals are appropriating Native American culture. Since reading that piece, I’ve read a number of other articles on the same topic. Kim and Kylie Kardashian were criticized, one for wearing cornrows and the other for wearing a Yaki ponytail (a hairpiece that, apparently, only black women are supposed to buy). The University of Ottawa cancelled a yoga class because a few people whined about stealing Indian culture. The class is back now, with a new teacher. The new teacher was, amazingly, hired without being told of the controversy surrounding stretching at U of O. When she learned what had happened before she was hired, she worried aloud that she may have been chosen for the position simply because she is Indian and therefore “authentic”. White people should not wear sombreros or put “el” in front of anything that isn’t actually a Spanish word. Iggy Azalea’s guilty of rapping while being white. (Her accuser, Macklemore, expressed this by rapping while being white – but that’s ok, apparently, because his heart is in the right place.) Recently, Justin Bieber caught flak for wearing dreadlocks, because he is not black. Designer Marc Jacobs’ use of dreads on his models during a fashion week show drew angry reactions for the same reason. To add ridiculousness to an already impressively ridiculous list, Kendall Jenner posed for a Vogue ballet-themed photo shoot in a leotard, leg-warmers and pointe shoes – and was promptly accused of appropriating ballet culture, whatever that is. Ballerinas spend so many years perfecting their craft that they feel personally insulted when a rube like Jenner dresses like one of them. Um, what? I’m not even going to try to even with that.
I’ve read a number of opinion pieces on this topic, ranging from mildly disapproving to militantly opposed. Some people are annoyed that white people are taking their traditional hairstyle or clothing or sacred objects lightly – making a fashion statement. Others say it’s ok for white people to do that, as long as they understand the significance of what they are wearing or using and support the culture in which they are dabbling. Others go a little further, annoyed that white people can put on or take off hairstyles, garb and décor without assuming any of the burden of the people who are born into it. An example that is frequently cited is black people with dreads or ‘fros feeling that people look down on them, while white people who adopt these styles are considered cool or edgy, and can still be treated like professionals. Then there are those who say it’s never ok for white people to have hairstyles associated with black people or teach stretching exercises associated with Indians or wear hats associated with Mexicans – white people should be one thing, white (whatever that means), and leave other people’s styles and symbols alone.
Since this is BethBlog and I can say whatever I want, here’s what I think of the whole cultural appropriation flap: Telling people what they can have on their walls or coffee table based on their country of origin is wrong. Telling people they can’t dress a certain way because they’re not a member of a certain ethnic group is wrong. Shutting down a free fitness class for university students because the participants are not of Indian origin is wrong. Telling people that they can’t wear certain hairstyles because they are white is wrong. Even giving a little by saying “ok, white people can wear these hairstyles, but they have to feel really, really, really bad about being white while they wear them” – that’s wrong, too. Insisting that people justify their possessions or fashion choices or personal tastes is wrong. To say otherwise is to say that placing limitations on someone’s freedom is ok if that someone is white – and it’s not ok. Whatever happened to the idea that we should be colour-blind and just let people be who they want to be? I guess we’re all one world – one race – until we’re not.
I have a map of the world on my wall, framed by flags from every country. Its colour and detail come together to make it a thing of beauty. If I cut out the tiny piece of the map that shows my home, and get rid of all the rest, the map would not be lovely any longer. It would be small and limited, and looking at it would make me feel diminished. In some ways, it feels as if that is what the people screaming “cultural appropriation” want.
I have statues and masks and wall-hangings from Africa, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. I have a nesting doll from Ukraine. I have a Mardi Gras mask from New Orleans and wooden shoes from Holland. I have a dream catcher, and a Lakota carving. I have a Chinese lantern commemorating the Year of the Monkey. I have three Navajo blankets. I have a beautiful pashmina my dear friend brought back to me from Istanbul, which I wrap around my shoulders when I’m chilly. I have candle holders and cloth and a wooden box from India. I have a marble box from Pakistan. I have pieces of jewelry that feature the yin yang symbol, and the ankh. I freely add influences from other culinary traditions to the food I prepare (sometimes more than one per dish). Depending on where I’m celebrating my birthday, I might end up wearing a giant sombrero. Why? Because I love these things. They are beautiful, and they enhance my look, my home and my life – they make me feel good. Also, because it isn’t hurting anyone for me to love these things – I’m not stealing from other people’s heritage, I’m enjoying it. In fact, they’re free to enjoy mine – and they do it everyday, in lots of different ways. Most of all, though, because nobody has the right to tell me, based on the colour of my skin, what I can or can’t appreciate, wear, eat, or do. That’s freedom, and it’s for everyone, and there are no contextual conditions.