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It’s a culture, not a fashion trend

by Cherry Jung, staff writer

photo by Victoria Lonardo

Picture a group of girls at Coachella or another indie music festival. If you imagined one white person wearing a Native American war-bonnet with multicolored feathers, sporting bindi gems above or between her eyebrows, or adorning tribal face paint, surely enough, you have thought of examples of cultural appropriation. Going hand in hand with racism and exoticism, cultural appropriation is the act of stealing something from someone else’s culture without any context or respect and making it one’s own by turning it “fashionable” or acceptable. One mode of cultural appropriation is when people wear culturally meaningful accessories or artifacts for the sake of looking “trendy” or “exotic”. This commodification of indigenous culture is infringement of a particular ethnic, religious, or regional group because they are taking in elements of a different culture and distorting their original significance.  

There are many examples of cultural appropriation, yet it may be hard to notice off the bat because of how often people negligently allow and accept it today. One example is when white people wear Native American costumes for Halloween or wear headdresses. White people have the privilege to “try on” this culture as a costume, whereas Native Americans were forced to adopt white culture while still facing discrimination. When white girls praise Vanessa Hudgens and Kendall Jenner for wearing bindis and large hoop nose rings and call them “Queen Coachella,” or “boho chic”, but humiliate Indian women for wearing the same traditional or Hindu religious ornaments, it is clear that it isn’t the ornament that’s the issue. The discrimination is about the type of person who is responsible for representing the cultural aspect of it. Because Hudgens and Jenner don’t practice a culture that traditionally uses these ornaments, it makes no sense that the only way for the public to comfortably accept other cultures is through them.

In Mindy Kaling’s 2015 Super Bowl commercial, a voice-over states, “After years of being treated like she was invisible, it occurred to Mindy: she might actually be invisible.” While Kaling is fed up being ignored by everyone, she plays around by doing outrageous things, such as attempting to kiss a random man (and getting caught). She presents the underlying truth that a woman of color such as Mindy would only be acknowledged when she “foreignly” stands out due to her traditional way of dress, accent, or skin color.

Even if a person defends him or herself by saying, “But I’m 1/16th Cherokee,” or “But I have a friend who’s indigenous and says it’s okay,” there is a thin line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. An example of cultural appreciation would be to attend a Diwali Indian festival to learn about the culture, and being invited to participate in a ritual. Appreciation quickly turns to appropriation when that ritual is performed out of invited context, unless one is a fully committed, recurrent member of said religion or culture. It’s necessary to keep consistency. For example, when Kylie Jenner appropriated dreads in her hair solely for fashion, she was complimented for the new “edgy” look. However, when Zendaya, a black musician, wore faux dreadlocks, Giuliana Rancic commented that she “smelled like patchouli oil and ‘weed’”. It’s important to view the cultural symbol the same way regardless of race.

If white people want to change themselves to look like another race, they better be prepared to not only take other ethnic groups’ aesthetics, but to also take being “jokingly” called “ghetto” or “terrorist” in public, receiving dirty looks, and being automatically judged by racial stereotypes.

This inconsistency is all the more disrespectful since only people of color are negatively affected by this bias.

“I feel irate when I am reduced to a stereotype […] I don’t feel as if the stereotypes given or the small accessories noticed truly sum up my culture,” said Xavier Jaramillo, senior.

It seems like it’s okay when members of socially powerful groups project an image imitating a culture not their own, but when indigenous people rightfully express their culture, they don’t receive the same amount of recognition or respect as whites do. If we continue to let cultural appropriation of socially subordinated groups slide, then original traditions of indigenous cultures will die out, and minority groups’ identities will become denied and defined by offensive or harmful stereotypes. As of this day, awareness is vital to make change. Informing others and standing up against society’s apathetic and ignorant reactions towards cultural appropriation is imperative for the long-anticipated resilience in the face of racial prejudice today.