Cultural Appropriation is something that we’ve all interacted with, whether we even realize it or not. Just take a quick glance at the website for Urban Outfitters, where the popular brand eagerly markets things like t-shirts covered in leopard print crosses, accessories decorated with the evil eye, and decorative wall hangings of various Hindu gods and goddesses. Cultural Appropriation in the United States is happening to almost all minority groups. It is slowly becoming a part of everyday life, and many people do not give a second thought to the tokens of other cultures that they casual wear and trivialize.
Some look at Cultural Appropriation as proof of America being a great melting pot of various peoples and traditions, but when bits and pieces of a culture are being stripped of their cultural history and relevance, is it really an integration of cultures or are these cultures actually being simplified and exotified for profit? When a pop star like Selena Gomez dons a Hindu Bindi, is she making the trend more accessible and getting people interested in Hindu history and cultural significance? I do not think so; it is my opinion that she is instead “other-ing” those who wear the Bindi (and are part of a minority) and turning it into a cheap commodity for those who happen to be in the cultural majority. For example, people praise Gomez’s “tribal” look in the video of her at the MTV Movie Awards, but if an actual Hindu woman were to wear a Bindi in her everyday life in the United States, she would be seen as an outsider. She would be seen as a person who has “failed to assimilate” to the cultural norm around her.
How do we avoid stripping religious symbols of their cultural and historical significance when it is a society wide problem? I believe that the first step is having conversations like this and raising awareness of the problem. When Cultural Appropriation is so prevalent in a society such as ours, most people probably do not even realize that it is a problem. When society and the media are force-feeding consumers the idea that being “worldly” is attractive, and that being “worldly” means dressing and accessorizing with elements taken from other cultures around the world, it is hard to get away from the message long enough to take a hard look at it. Just the very idea that being “worldly” means that one should dress using aspects of other cultures is infuriating to me. What happened to the idea that being worldly involved being well traveled, well read, thinking with a global perspective, and being able to see situations from various viewpoints? This idea has now been simplified down to cheap accessories and mockeries of other cultures so that the average citizen can feel better about themselves and feel superior over others.
The next step, after having a discussion of the problem of Cultural Appropriation itself, is education. Educating people about what they’re really wearing, what it’s cultural and historical significance is, and how it being worn by and outsider is viewed by the culture itself is another important part of the process. I hope that education will lead to more cultural awareness, and less trivializing of minorities the world over. I don’t think that people mean to Culturally Appropriate something, but when that is what the media consistently praises and there are no other voices engaging in the discussion, it’s almost hard not to.