In an increasingly connected and diverse world, cultural exchanges are inevitable. We are constantly exposed to different cultures through immigration, globalization, social media, international travel, and more.
In the world of fashion, cultural appropriation is a significant issue, both for designers and customers. With various controversies arising after certain designers' collections, customers find themselves at a crossroads, wondering if it's acceptable to purchase and wear accessories and clothing from other cultures. During sales events, it's not uncommon to hear questions like the following from Caucasian customers: "Can I buy this African print accessory and wear it?"
However, it's crucial to differentiate between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation to promote respect, understanding, and the celebration of cultural diversity.
Cultural Appropriation: What Is It?
Cultural appropriation occurs when elements of one culture are adopted or used by another culture, often without a proper understanding, respect, or acknowledgment of their meaning and context. This can include traditional clothing, religious symbols, hairstyles, artistic practices, food, and much more. When this is done insensitively or disrespectfully, it can cause harm and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
Common examples of cultural appropriation include wearing traditional hairstyles from other cultures, such as African braids, without understanding their significance, commercializing religious symbols for fashion, or reducing traditional dishes to food trends without respect for their cultural origins.
Cultural appreciation: How does it work?
On the other hand, cultural appreciation involves learning, understanding, and respecting elements of a culture different from your own. This requires an open mind and a genuine desire to learn more about traditions, customs, arts, cuisine, religion, and other cultural aspects in a respectful and authentic manner.
Cultural appreciation implies a willingness to acknowledge cultural diversity, value the contributions of different cultures to society, and celebrate this diversity. This may include learning a new language, participating in cultural festivals, cooking, and trying traditional dishes, and engaging with people from different cultural backgrounds to better understand their perspectives.
The important nuance
The line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation can sometimes be blurred, and the distinction often depends on context, intention, and respect. Here are some points to keep in mind:
1. Respect the context: It's essential to understand the origin and meaning of the cultural elements you incorporate into your life. Using them authentically and respectfully, recognizing their significance, leans more towards cultural appreciation.
2. Consent: In some cases, it may be appropriate to seek consent or collaborate with members of the appropriated culture to avoid appropriation.
3. Sensitivity to stereotypes: Avoid perpetuating stereotypes or reducing a culture to clichés. Be aware of the potential consequences of your actions.
4. Listening and learning: Be open to learning and listening to the voices of the culture you appreciate. Listen to their stories and experiences to better understand their perspectives.
Here are two examples illustrating cultural appropriation, one in fashion and the other in theater.
Stella McCartney's spring-summer 2018 collection sparked a debate on cultural appropriation due to its use of patterns and styles associated with African culture. The collection featured clothing and accessories incorporating African prints, vibrant colors, and tribal motifs with very few Black models on the runway, immediately drawing attention and raising questions about the use of these cultural elements.
One of the primary concerns regarding cultural appropriation in this collection was that Stella McCartney, a British designer, borrowed distinctive elements from African culture without acknowledging or respecting their origin and significance. African wax prints, for instance, are deeply rooted in African history and culture and often carry symbolic meanings. Critics argued that using them as mere decorations without understanding or honoring their significance was problematic.
The debate on cultural appropriation highlights the need for fashion designers and brands to be more aware of cultural diversity and consider the importance of respecting the cultural origins of the elements they incorporate into their collections. It also underscores the importance of providing a platform for creators from these cultures to tell their own stories and promote their own craftsmanship, rather than seeing their traditions and heritage used without their consent or involvement.
In the case of Stella McCartney's spring 2018 collection, the cultural appropriation debate contributed to raising awareness in the fashion industry and encouraging designers and brands to think more critically about how they approach and use cultural elements in their creations. It also emphasizes the importance of education and mutual understanding between cultures to promote respect and celebration of cultural diversity.
Robert Lepage, a renowned Quebecois director, playwright, and actor, has been at the center of controversies related to cultural appropriation due to his theatrical productions, which raised concerns about cultural representation and authenticity.
One of the works that garnered significant attention is his production titled "SLĀV," presented in 2018. This play centered on the music of African American slaves and featured predominantly white singers, including Betty Bonifassi. Critics argued that this production was an example of cultural appropriation because it failed to give a voice and visibility to Black artists who historically created this music. Moreover, it was accused of simplifying and distorting the experiences of African American slaves for entertainment purposes.
This triggered an intense debate about cultural appropriation in the world of theater and culture in general. Advocates for cultural diversity called for greater sensitivity and recognition of the authentic voices and stories of cultural communities represented in artistic works.
Robert Lepage responded to these critiques by acknowledging legitimate concerns related to cultural appropriation and expressing his intent to better understand these issues in the future. He also emphasized the importance of artistic freedom and cultural exploration while recognizing the need to respect cultural authenticity and diversity.
The case of Robert Lepage and "SLĀV" illustrates the complexity of cultural appropriation in the artistic world. It highlights the need for deep reflection on how artists represent and draw inspiration from different cultures while respecting the authentic voices and experiences of the cultural communities involved. It also underscores the importance of open dialogue and education to raise awareness of these issues and promote respect for cultural diversity in the art and culture world.
The boundary between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is not always well-defined, and it can be challenging to navigate. Last year, controversy arose when young Caucasian girls wore African braids, sparking a debate with divided opinions. Tim On the Gram, a model, TikToker, and Instagram influencer, addressed this issue in a video.
An article in Clin d’œil magazine delves into the subject of cultural appropriation in fashion, beauty, and hairstyles. Notably, students were expelled from schools in the United States for having hairstyles associated with the Black community, such as dreadlocks. However, when celebrities like Kim Kardashian wear the same styles, they are often considered trendy.
Promoting respect and celebration of cultural diversity
The ultimate goal should be to create an environment where cultural diversity is authentically respected and celebrated. This entails recognizing the issues related to cultural appropriation while promoting cultural appreciation, mutual learning, and mutual respect between cultures. When you come from a different culture and purchase an African fabric accessory or clothing to wear, it's not cultural appropriation if your purchase is not intended to disrespect or exploit that culture.
In the end, it's essential to promote understanding and acceptance rather than exploitation or disrespect of different cultures.