Bohemian aesthetics are a thing, I get it: you’re young; you’re carefree; you’re a wild thing etc. Or, I get it: you love other cultures, you know – you appreciate and admire them – especially the exotic ones that appeal to your earthy spirituality and connection to the Earth. Whatever, I get it: you take and wear what you want from wherever you want without thinking of the consequences for other (browner?) people. I get it.
From Paul Frank to asos, to topman to Victoria’s Secret to Ke$ha and MGMT, fashion and white popular culture have a way with other cultures, don’t you think? ‘Navajo,’ ‘Cherokee’, ‘Aztec’ and generically ‘tribal’ prints have been high street trends for the past few years, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen scantily clad people in fake ‘war paint’ and headdresses in magazines, music videos, and music festivals.
Cultural appropriation is a nuanced and complicated subject, but I’m going to call it: when the above are done by people not from one of the cultures whose object is being worn, cultural appropriation is taking place and cultural appropriation is racist.
Cultural appropriation is taking -–without permission – the cultural artefacts, intellectual property, or cultural expressions, of another culture. When you participate in cultural appropriation, you trivialise the culture from which you’re appropriating, participate in the commodification of diverse peoples and traditions, play on stereotypes and caricatures, and in doing so reproduce essentialising tropes. You devalue and disrespect the cultural practices of peoples already living under colonisation and the effects of systemic and institutionalised racism. When people say it’s no longer fashionable to think non-white cultures are basically worthless, I want to laugh – it’s high fashion, babe.
These practices are almost invariably defended by using one (or all) of the following arguments: it’s just fashion/art/music/film; it’s just borrowing – cultures borrow from each other all the time; it’s appreciation not appropriation; you’re creating segregation/being a reverse racist/excluding people; people appropriate from Western culture(s) all the time.
In discussions of whether or not something is racist, it’s surprisingly common for (white) people to forget the racial context of the discussion: several hundred years of imperialism, racism, exoticism, orientalism, colonisation, genocide, forced assimilation, and dispossession from land, language, and culture. Reverse racism and cultural appropriation cannot exist when power is distributed hierarchically, not horizontally. Globally, and certainly within the predominantly White and Western countries where hipster appropriations predominantly take place, (middle-class) whiteness is the norm and power is so blatantly asymmetrically in favour of white people that the argument that ‘borrowing’ is anything other than stealing is pitiable. When were you planning on giving it back? After all the brown people are white?