When you woke up this morning and slipped on your lace up Minnetonkas, donned your caftan and checked to see if the henna on your hands was still intact, did you worry, for a moment, that you might offend a member of the First Nation, a Mesopotamian, and that nice Indian American lady who works at the cafe you like to get your free trade coffee from? Or, perhaps you thought as you lined your eyes Egyptian style "I am a citizen of the world." Or, more likely, did you not give a second thought to the ethnic and cultural origins of the fashions you chose and simply thought, "Yes. I look dope like this."
Little did you know that your style choices, determined by what you like and reinforced by fashion and entertainment media, might be judged as insensitive cultural appropriation by the more socially conscious among your peers.
Cultural appropriation is something of a buzz phrase lately. Articles have cropped up in all manner of media from The Huffington Post to the Post Racial Times and many outlets in between. Most of these articles haughtily opine about the shameful celebrity examples of appropriation in action and the cultural damage incurred. It is as though contemporary taste makers clothe themselves by thoughtlessly careening, willy nilly, through the annals of precious tradition and lay waste to the already ailing heritages from whence these practices emerged.
As Americans, we seem to have a practice of shopping for visual identities like we shop for shoes. We open the cultural closet and reach in and borrow the customs and traditions of a foreign group. Is this another ugly American behavior, a callous act by the inappropriately privileged? Or, is there a wider berth pertaining to when this social behavior crosses a line. Visual identities and practices which are subject to cultural appropriation range from institutionalized racial and cultural stereotypes to multiculturalist influences often pervasive in fashion. That covers a lot of ground. So, at what point between a white guy ironically wearing a Cosby sweater and Lady Gaga sporting a burqa does it become offensive and when it is just part of living in a global society?
Miley Cyrus has fallen under substantial criticism for her excessive displays of “twerking” and for her use of all black background dancers and singers in her act. But aside from the myriad (negative) assumptions about Ms. Cyrus underlying those criticisms, how is this new? Pop singers have been “borrowing” music, moves and looks from American black culture since pop music was invented. Elvis Presley "invented" Rock and Roll on exactly that basis. This is not to say it is ok, but why all the fuss now?
Also, why is black America in such a hurry to claim twerking for itself? Surely there is more to explore in contemporary black culture than an undulating stripper dance. Maybe if we quieted the screams of accusation about appropriation, we could get to the business of unearthing the next great American art form. Jazz, the first American art form, was at its inception, strictly the territory of black American musicians. But it has certainly not suffered through its appropriation by landmark talents like the very white Benny Goodman, Henry Levine or Chet Baker. (A different argument might be made about the contribution of Kenny G. on the other hand...)
It may also be worth noting that no one flinched when Justin Timberlake mentioned twerking in his massive hit “Sexy Back” a few years ago. Possibly cultural appropriation is cool if you are a guy? Or maybe we just resent Miley for being suddenly sexy and rebellious, like the teenager she is. But, let's get real: Cyrus is a pop star, and a young one at that. She is supposed to have a shifting identity, rooted in what is current and cool and, above all, sexy. Remember, Madonna wrote the rules on this and she was criticized for stealing a black girl's voice and dance style well before Miley put on her (culturally appropriated) Hannah Montana boots.
Similarly, Katy Perry has been lambasted for tastelessly dressing up as a Geisha girl while performing her sugary brand of pop music. But Gwen Stefani suffered far less criticism for accessorizing herself with a line of tiny Japanese Harajuku girls several years back. Perhaps the difference there had something to do with the how deeply ingrained the Geisha tradition is for Japan. It seems odd, though, for people to be so offended that Katy Perry would dare “steal” a piece of ancient and proud Japanese culture when you consider that a Geisha girl is essentially a high class prostitute, and that the vocation was, during its heyday, an opportunity available to the few Japanese girls lucky enough to display talents and looks aligned with the calling. Most girls in old Japan were oppressed and had little opportunity to look forward to. Being Geisha afforded them a kind of respect and adoration, but it also ensured they were utterly commodified (not unlike a pop star). Meanwhile, Harajuku Girls are a relatively new Japanese fashion phenomenon and can't boast the same level of depth, tradition and... well...oldness as Geisha. So, Gwen is off the hook while Katy hangs on it by her borrowed kimono.
But cultural appropriation in entertainment is just the tip of the iceberg. Military clothing as fashion could be offensive for so many reasons. It may seem innocent to the blithe fashion conscious youth who grew up in the halcyon American middle class where war was something to watch on TV. But a person who grew up in East Berlin might have a different association when looking at the clean lines of a Russian or German military issue coat. Similarly, a Chinese person who left their family and home behind to escape the Cultural Revolution and Chairman Mao's particularly toxic brand of communism might not dig it so much to see a white girl sporting the Chairman's famous hat.
Where is the line? Who can get away with wearing a Daishiki or, for that matter, the colors of the African flag? Is it ok for a privileged Caucasian woman to wear henna or a bindi for fashion's sake? And how can we as observers know if she is making this choice out of an abiding love and respect for the culture she emulates or if she is just thoughtlessly throwing it on like a trendy pair of sneakers made in a crumbling Bangladesh factory?
The truth is, when looked at it under a microscope, most American cultural experiences probably buckle under the weight of cultural appropriation. But it is interesting to look at what people choose to get worked up about. Nobody is yelling about The Village People and they appropriated stereotypes six ways to Sunday. Ok, it was awhile ago now, but I don't think cultural appropriation is what people who objected to The Village People were upset about. Silly as they may seem to us today, their use of different ethnic markers of masculinity was ironic. It was in the service of a more subtle message about mainstream cultural exclusion of gays.
So, maybe it behooves us to look at why this cultural borrowing exists. Isn't it possible that when Madonna sports a gold and diamond “grill” usually reserved for gangstas of color that she is inviting that segment of the populace to the table? After all, she really doesn't need what little money or fame she might generate by using that demographic's style, or even the “street cred” it might afford her.
Or, couldn't it be that when a group of young, mixed hipster girls light the way for Mardi Gras parades and call themselves “Glambeaux” that they aren't stealing from or insulting the former slaves and freed black men that traditionally held the job, but rather are reveling in the rare position of honor those men were given and putting to rest the days when there were slaves and recently freed men to take the role?
There seems to be a good deal more coverage of the Miley and Katy cultural thievery debacles than about the movement to change the names and logos of sports teams like the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves. How is dressing like a Native American and carrying a tomahawk while doing a contrived and fake war dance at a sports game any different from Julianna Hough showing up to a halloween party in black face? In both cases, entire ethnic groups might be profoundly hurt by the misrepresentation of their race and the callous lack of sensitivity of their blighted history in relation to mainstream American culture.
And yet, the resistance to those changes in name and iconography for sports teams is no small thing. Proponents of keeping the names and logos as they are cite the idea that these teams and their identifying markers are an indelible part of American Culture. Ironic? Maybe. But maybe, as much as we may not like it, they are not completely wrong. America is, after all, “The Melting Pot.” What is American culture, if not a mestizo of the cultures of the nations that gave us the citizenry we claim today? Those citizens came to be a part of the cultural fabric of America in as many different ways and for as many different reasons as there are types of people.
It will always be in poor taste to don blackface or a big chief headdress for fun and fashion. It will also always be the habit of Americans to deepen and enrich their identities by trying on the pieces of their culture that they didn't necessarily provide. Whether they know it or not, it is a way of walking, if not a mile, at least a few paces in someone else's moccasins.
Not all progress is bad. Not all cultural changes destroy the legacy that gave birth to them. Cultural Appropriation is described in some forums as an assimilation of the cultural markers of one group by a more dominant one. But maybe this is the point: no one culture in America should be more dominant than another and, maybe, it is by the relentless mixing, stealing, borrowing and melding of music, art, religion, social behavior and ritual that we will finally see the end of cultural exclusionism. And if this is so, I guess the question remains, is it worth our ire?
What is our anthropological (and human) responsibility? Is there one? Do we continue to police the world of media and ethnic custom to studiously point out the infractions of hack cultural copycats whenever they rear their unsuitably ethnically garbed heads? Or maybe we acknowledge that the world has changed. Maybe we don't know unsuitable when we see it anymore and perhaps the time has come to stop forcing hallmarks of heritage back into their own cultural ghettos.