Why it’s important to talk about cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation. It’s something you’ve probably read a lot about lately, but that’s important. We should be talking about it a lot. In fact, I feel like we all need to talk about it more, and more in depth. What’s okay, and more importantly, what isn’t okay?  It can be a tricky path to navigate, and what’s the difference between simply appreciating another culture and appropriating it? As a young person, I’m working hard to understand the difference between appreciating and appropriating.

I’m not even sure if it’s appropriate for me to speak on this topic — after all, I am a white, British person, and my culture doesn’t really come under fire. But I am working on a degree in religion, so how faith and culture are viewed is something I’m often thinking about. After feeling fairly uncomfortable about some recent events, like the Givenchy show at Paris Fashion Week, I think it’s really important to open up the discussion. Cultural appropriation isn’t the next fashion trend.

I started thinking a lot about this topic when my university held celebrations for the Hindu festival Holi. Is it okay for hundreds of teens to be throwing paint at each other without understanding why the ritual has meaning? The celebrations were held by the Hindu society, so in this case, they wanted to share an exciting part of their culture and faith. The Holi festival was a really fun afternoon, and it’s a wonderful thing to see a diverse group of people celebrating Holi. This was a great way to learn about another culture and experience part of it too, and I love that the Hindu society went to the trouble to put on such a great afternoon of color and music.

But this is a great example of an event that could have been problematic in a different context. Sponsored by the Hindu society on my campus, the event was educational and brought together a diverse group of students to share in celebrating another culture. But, had the event been organized by another group and stripped of the meaning behind the festival, it would have been a different story. With that in mind, let’s talk about context. It’s not okay to pick and choose pieces from someone else’s culture and turn them into a fashion trend. Take bindis, for example. Bindis are actually what first led me to find out about cultural appropriation and why it’s problematic. They are a massive festival trend, and you can see them on the foreheads of plenty of celebrities at Coachella. Seems pretty harmless, right?

Bindis are part of South Asian culture, and are used in a lot of different faiths from the area. For many, they have a great deal of spiritual significance — and they look really beautiful! But before you go putting one on so you look cool at a music festival, you need to stop and learn what a bindi means and is used for. It’s unfair to take something that’s super important to many, and boil it down to nothing more than a fashion statement. Taking an interest in other cultures around the world is absolutely fine. In fact, it’s important. We should be trying to learn more about our fellow humans, but that also means being respectful of aspects of other cultures that could be offensive if used inappropriately.

So, how do we know what crosses the line between appreciation and appropriation? I’m not sure that I have that answer entirely figured out, yet. I’m young and learning and doing my best to educate myself. For now, though, I’d say if people are choosing to share a part of their culture with you, then by all means, participate, learn and share in the experiences they’re trying to educate you on. But using part of another culture for a fashion statement or some sort of costume? Not cool! Do some research and use your brain.

Respect other cultures, learn about them, but most importantly understand the connotations of what you’re wearing or doing before you do it. People are usually happy to answer questions about their faith and culture, just keep in mind it can be a sensitive topic. If you’re interested in other cultures, there are all kinds of resources out there for you to learn.

(Image via here.)