The magazine Elle UK has been taken to task for its most recent cover, which features musical artist Pharrell Williams adorned in a feathered headdress.
The Internet exploded (as the Internet is wont to do). Many felt that taking a feathered headdress, a religious artifact for Native Americans, and transforming the clothing item into high fashion was both ‘disrespectful’ and ‘racist.’
Elle dressing Pharrell in the sacred garments of a minority subculture was an act of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation “refers to picking and choosing elements of a culture by a member of another culture without permission,” according to The Huffington Post. “This includes traditional knowledge, religious symbols, artifacts or any other unauthorized use of cultural practice or ideation.”
We see cultural appropriation in the media all the time. It’s Selena Gomez wearing a bindi in her “Come and Get It” music video (and in several photo ops that followed). It’s Miley Cyrus adopting “ratchet culture.” It’s Lady Gaga wearing a burqa.
The reason cultural appropriation is such a widespread problem is that so many people don’t understand that it is a problem. We as a culture think of “racism” as being prejudice, discrimination, and antagonism directed at someone of a different race. So many of us don’t understand that taking from another culture without permission is also a racist act. When we take something that carries significant religious and/or cultural importance without permission and use that thing in a way that those traditions were not intended to be used, on magazine covers and in music videos, this waters down and cheapens traditions that were designed to be specific and meaningful.
Of course, I don’t think Selena Gomez/Miley Cyrus/Lady Gaga/Pharrell intended to be hurtful with their cultural appropriation. But just because they didn’t intend to cause harm, that doesn’t mean there aren’t repercussions. Hatred isn’t the driving force behind cultural appropriation. It’s ignorance. And if ignorance is the engine behind cultural appropriation, then entitlement is the gasoline this car runs on. Cultural appropriation is when we pick and choose items from other cultures we want to make our own, and our entitlement overrides our empathy. It’s more important for us to take what we want to take than to respect what has value and meaning in another culture and leave that thing alone.
It’s important to note that there is a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange.”True cultural exchange is not the process of ‘Here’s my culture, I’ll have some of yours’ that we sometimes think it is,” according to EverydayFeminism. “It’s something that should be mutual.” No one’s telling you to spit out that bite of a burrito or roll up your mat and never do yoga again. Cultural exchange is where a tradition has been shared as opposed to taken, and you are absolutely free to argue with me about this in the comments. (Lord knows, that’s what the Internet is for.)
You may have participated in cultural appropriation at some point. So many of us unwittingly have. I was a child of the late ’90s and in elementary school I would have definitely followed repeat-cultural-appropriation-offender Gwen Stefani to the ends of the Earth, I definitely wore chopsticks in my buns and bindis on my forehead like my idol. I’m embarrassed about this. I wish I had known better. I didn’t. I do now, And I want to keep educating myself, I want to keep knowing better, so I can be an awesome global citizen and be as respectful of other cultures as I am of my own.