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With the 2018 festival season fast approaching, many music fans will be looking forward to travelling the world to get amongst great tunes, chilled vibes, and good times.
But some punters will get more than they bargained for, also catching an unbilled glimpse of the latest in cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is when someone takes the appealing parts of thousands of years of another people’s history and tradition, and leaves respect and understanding by the wayside. Coachella 2016 and ‘17 were a hotbed of Native American headdresses and tribal tattoos framing the faces of ignorant festival-goers. The issue has become so bad at similar festivals in Canada, that some festivals have imposed bans on culturally insensitive outfits. Year after year, somebody dons something that doesn’t belong to them in an attempt to channel that ‘festival look’. If we consume a more woke (socially conscious) brand of media, we’re likely to understand that, this is not ok. It disrespects and belittles minorities, reducing revered customs and beliefs to kitsch accessories or edgy fashion statements. So why does cultural appropriation keep happening?
Assimilating in the dominant west
For years, the West has incorporated customs and rituals from around the world into its cultural canon, often diluting their significance. The Māori language staggers into a second-wave revival, while insurance companies use the Haka to sell their products. Japanese Kanji are sported as tattoos for their aesthetic, rather than their meaning. And, the wellness-industry has transformed yoga from a meditative expression of spirituality, into the stretch-based gym class we know it as today. By taking from cultures and using the parts we like as our own, the west perpetuates the colonial-era idea that respect for the history and culture of others is unnecessary. The parts of different cultures that are brought into western consciousness are determined by the west, rather than by mutual understanding.
German insurance company, ARAG, uses the haka, an ancient Māori war dance, to sell insurance in their 2017 campaign. Their response when the issue of cultural appropriation was highlighted: "With its rhythm, impressive gestures and facial expressions, haka is ideally suited to bring our messages across."
Asking for a minority culture to be treated as equally valuable within a western society is also a difficult feat to achieve. Everyday Feminism writer Jarune Uwujaren says that “western culture invites, and at times, demands assimilation.” In an article on the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation, Uwujaren points out that an Indian-American needs to wear a business suit to survive, whereas not all Americans need to own a sari. One is universally accepted formal wear, while the other is a costume, deemed exotic and mystical in the dominant narrative. There is a definitive difference in status between what is universally acceptable, and what is ‘other’.
These different levels of respect for different cultures show us that western culture is still the status quo, and everyone else’s culture is awkwardly accommodated through bits and pieces of reappropriated customs. While attitudes are beginning to shift, there is definitely still a lot of work to do before suits and saris have the same amount of cultural capital. But where to begin?
In the increasingly diverse western world, there are many people who express the culture that they identify with in mainstream media. Many a famous fashion designer, artist, and musician has drawn inspiration from their roots, and shared their culture with the West. Shows like Master of None and Atlanta are providing alternative narratives that showcase minority cultures in a completely new way. But such expressions stem from knowing what it is to be black, or Chinese, or Indian, in a certain time and place. If the West is lucky enough to be invited to listen, then it is a privilege to share in that experience, and should be treated as such.
However, what we often see is people taking that sharing of culture to mean that it is ok for everyone to use too. When representation of minority groups increases, so does appropriation of their culture. We need look no further than the way artists like, Iggy Azalea, and Miley Cyrus, take from black culture without understanding what they are using and where it came from.
It is tempting to argue that appropriation of cultural practices can be excused because everything in the mainstream is just one pool of culture. Azalea and Cyrus are simply responding to the environment they are saturated in—is it really that far fetched that they would pick it up and run with it? But, just because an aspect of a culture has entered the mainstream, that does not mean it is up for grabs. The assumption that it is ok for anybody to use symbols and practices that they don’t understand means that minorities lose control over their own narratives.
Despite the pervasive presence of cultural appropriation, there are signs that western society’s attitudes towards diversity and representation are shifting. A wider range of groups are being represented in our media, and those groups are getting the chance to tell their own stories, rather than have somebody else do it for them. Everyone has a story tell—all we need to do is listen.