Cultural Appropriation: Elevating the Hidden or Disregarding the Less Powerful

In this era of social and political fracture, the question of cultural appropriation has popped up on social media, spurred by a recent opinion article in the New York Times. The genesis of the article, titled “Finding the Beauty in Cultural Appropriation,” was a conversation at last fall’s Lagos Fashion Week, an annual event featuring designers from throughout Africa.

The writer, Connie Wang, an editor for Refinery29 who explores fashion subcultures, shares a discussion she had with Mary Edoro, the editor of BellaNaija, a fashion publication based in Lagos, about the appropriation of traditional, rural Nigerian fabrics and beads into contemporary Nigerian fashion. According to Ms. Wang, Ms. Edoro told her cultural appropriation, “when done in a good way makes us appreciate things we might typically ignore.” Ms. Wang continues to explore the issue, examining how African-American street fashion has been appropriated by European designers; Japanese women who are appropriating Mexican-American culture; white women with cornrows, and Afropunk style, which originated in Brooklyn. Ms. Wang concludes: “Reframing fashion-based cultural appropriation not as a bad habit but as a discussion of ideas helps make these calculations easier. We understand how ideas work: Sometimes they’re unnecessarily offensive, and sometimes they’re offensive because they need to be. Sometimes the controversy they generate is silly and piddling; other times, it’s enlightening. As my seatmate in Lagos told me, it can help us see something we would have otherwise missed.”

“We also have witnessed to the other side of cultural appropriation—Native American tribal identities or racial slurs as the names for sports teams; rap beats or music to promote or sell products; ancient African or Mayan designs on wallpaper or coffee mugs, and hairstyle imitations. We even have a national holiday for “sanctioned” cultural appropriation—Halloween. Within the world of the arts, there have been several controversies and backlashes stemming from white writers who depict minority or indigenous characters; artists who depict other cultures, and people who defend these actions as “creative license.” The writer Anna Holmes, in another New York Times article, characterized it this way: “Appropriations are expressions of ignorance or aggression, when objects, ideas, lived experiences or points of view are not so much examined as exploited and performed. Exchanges, conversely, suggest a certain sort of generosity, an openness to discussion and an invitation to reciprocity. But what I do know is that underlying the idea of appropriation is the sense that something — or someone — is just there for the taking: A style of dress, a personal narrative, an entire continent.”

Does cultural appropriation allow us to expand our understanding of other cultures? Are we elevating the hidden or exploiting and disregarding the less powerful? Is it a form of communication? About what and to whom? Is it a bridge to cross the divide? Do culture and the arts belong to anyone and everyone? What are the boundaries and where do they begin? Who decides?

In this tough and often painful social political climate, I suspect these issues will continue to rage across the divide. In my opinion what’s lacking is a fundamental respect for the humanity, dignity, equality, worth and potential for valuable contributions of all people. And until we’re able to see “the other” as “me” it will be difficult to close that gap. What do you think? Please share your thoughts:

PS: I received a few inquiries seeking more information about the Education and Community Engagement Conference I featured in last week’s Arts & Culture Connections blog. At this time, the group does not have a website or Facebook page.