Cultural Appropriation is a term that’s being thrown around a lot, particularly in the fashion industry.
The meaning of it and what actually classifies as cultural appropriation is more complex and sometimes not that simple. Depending on who you ask you might just get a different answer.
Generally speaking, the term can be defined as instances where members of a dominant culture take specific elements from a culture of people who have been systematically, politically, economically or socially oppressed by that very dominant culture. It always boils down to unequal power dynamics: someone from a more dominant culture taking elements from an oppressed or underrepresented culture and benefiting from it.
Someone outrightly mocking a different culture, wearing something like a costume or being performative about it, can also be seen as cultural appropriation.
What is cultural appreciation?
An appreciation for a certain culture always has to do with respect followed by a genuine curiosity. People who appreciate a different culture also understand that this appreciation doesn’t always have to be visible (i.e wearing a headdress, dreadlocks, national costumes etc) but can also happen in private through education, conversations and much more.
More than anything, it’s important to be respectful and learn rather than being performative about it.
What if people from an oppressed culture take elements from the dominant culture?
Is this also cultural appropriation?
This instance does not qualify as cultural appropriation but rather as assimilation stemming from a need for social survival where a marginalized community is adapting to the dominant culture in order to create better conditions of survival (such as less struggle, further discrimination and therefore trying to fit in).
It’s important to ask for approval from those cultures you are taking from, but nevertheless need to remember that one person’s approval doesn’t speak for the entire culture, therefore it is essential to also do research beyond that.
Cultural appropriation can happen on a personal level but also on a larger scale with a brand or a corporation for example.
On a personal level, this can be through taking a specific hairstyle and turning it into their own without giving any cultural significance to it. Cultural appropriation can also take place in different instances such as wearing traditional clothes as costumes.
When we see brands culturally appropriating (especially in fashion), the majority of times it’s a case of them copying a certain style, pattern, technique etc. from a marginalized group without giving any credit, cultural context, involving anyone from these communities or giving back to them.
This is purely for their own benefit and they’re profiting off the backs of smaller communities without thinking twice or doing proper research.
What can brands and individuals do better?
-Understand the position you’re in i.e superior to another culture and therefore you hold a lot of privilege. Use it wisely and correctly.
-Do your research! Don’t just rely on the opinion or experience of one person but go beyond that to try and get a bigger picture.
-A great way for brands to work with different cultures in the future would be for them to collaborate with said cultures: Involve them in the process and allow them space and the opportunity to benefit from this as well rather than oppressing them even further. That’s an honest way of showing appreciation over appropriation.
To find out more, make sure you listen to the new episode of our podcast ‘Consciousness Beyond The Product’ featuring Vanessa Acosta, Samira Mahboub, Beatrace Angut Oola and Sita Sunar.
You can listen to the full episode via Spotify or Apple Podcasts.
As well as find out more on our Instagram account @sabinna_com
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