From the time we come into existence, we adapt to prevailing cultures and allow it to become our identity. The association to a specific culture stems from our parents or guardians and the society that we are brought up in. However, have you ever paused to ask yourself how often you contribute to misrepresenting cultures and discrediting one’s identity?
One of the trending topics of the past decade has been cultural appropriation. Owing to the increasing availability of digital platforms, accessibility to unlimited data and connectivity, and the growing community of netizens with impressionable minds, this conversation is one that needs to be had.
What is Cultural?
Firstly, to study an as delicate subject like this one, we need to dive into its core. Culture can be understood as the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of particular people or society. This can further be divided into three main categories:
Ideology: This has to do with shared faith and patriotism for one’s religion or nation.
A shared way of life: This is defined by the lifestyle that one engages in on a day-to-day basis.
Cultural production: It refers to the art, literacy, movies, and general representation.
Upon taking a look at the very brief definition of the term culture, we develop an elementary understanding of the concept.
What is cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation occurs when a dominant group with considerable power picks up specific traits or parts of culture from disadvantaged groups and uses them for entertainment value. In this process, the original meaning of the trait is dissolved and the non-dominant group receives little to no credit. Their culture is commonly misrepresented and treated as a trend.
Identifying the problem
While it is an honour to have the world celebrate and participate in one’s culture, it is severely contemptuous to misrepresent and discredit it. Most adapters of the practice of cultural appropriation profit from the fashionable aspects without having to face the negative ramifications that a person of said practice would have to deal with. For centuries, throughout history, cultural attributes such as fashion, language, food and faith have been ridiculed by dominating cultures. The trauma of having to exchange one’s culture for easily accepted attributes has, therefore, led to a lack of acceptance when it comes to the cultural portrayal.
Furthermore, famous award-winning author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, illustrated the struggles of a Nigerian woman establishing herself in America in her book Americanah. She carefully explained how the character’s education and talents were overlooked by her appearance and accent. The subtle racism and stereotypes determined the future of the character. Ifemelu’s character is seen changing her appearance (straightening her natural hair to fit into the traditional definition of beautiful) and mannerism (adapting a western English accent, even though English is not her first language) to qualify for jobs and to simply be accepted in the community.
This is one example of numerous documented and undocumented real-life stories of individuals that have not been accepted because of their practices, yet their cultures are celebrated in the name of fashion and trends.
In the current media and fashion industry, the most common form of misrepresentation occurs when the people of a culture do not get a chance to represent it themselves. One such notorious example would be the Vogue India (2017 May) cover that hosted Kendall Jenner alongside the late Sushant Singh Rajput as the face of the magazine. Many Indians questioned why the magazine chose not to be represented by an Indian female celebrity for the 10th anniversary issue. It speaks of the missed opportunity and profitability by misrepresentation.
The idea of cultural portrayal should be to give the right people a platform and a voice. To be able to tell a story about a culture that stands the test of time despite being challenged and having been influenced by historical events.
Starting the trend of cultural appreciation
This is a long-overdue journey that we as citizens of the world need to embark on. We need to change cultural appropriation into cultural appreciation. Cultural appreciation is the act of participating in a custom, in a respectful and informed way with the consent of the people of that particular society.
The world is moving towards a global culture that is uniting woke and vocal individuals. As a result, we see that more dominant groups are being confronted for their lack of awareness. Additional communities are slowly being credited where credit is due. The concept of cultural exchange, which refers to learning and contributing to a practice over a prolonged period needs to be publicized. Embracing other traditions and coming together to celebrate one another needs to be normalized.
How to be part of the movement
The very first step is to acknowledge the fact that we can never fully understand the sentiments of a culture. We, therefore, need to educate ourselves through research about the community we choose to represent. Learning about a culture is a practical experience that can be cultivated by travelling to the culturally dominant countries, reading literature, watching movies and listening to music, eating the traditional foods and finally spending time with the people that practice the culture daily.
One should keep an open mind and be thoughtful regardless of personal beliefs. Identify stereotypes and take a stand against it. Avoid accessorizing with the things a culture finds sacred.
Cultural appropriation on a personal level
Being an Indian, born and brought up in South Africa, my understanding of culture has also evolved. I follow a mix of cultures that accommodate my lifestyle. Having had friends and personally being a part of marginalised cultures, I learnt that most of the cultural appropriation is inflicted from a lack of knowledge. As I started speaking up and educating others as well as taking the initiative to learn about the different cultures of Africa, the ignorance and misrepresentation reduced significantly around me.
South Africa is known as the rainbow nation and is home to multiple cultures, languages and races. On our national heritage day festival, my friends and I dress in each other’s cultural attires demonstrating unity by sharing and contributing to one another’s cultures. Such practices are applauded and considered progressive.
In retrospect, debating culture and cultural appropriation is a tradition of its own. It is important to keep the conversation going so that the future generations have a perspective. It is also important to remember that our interpretations and opinions stay elementary and evolving throughout different stages of life, thus our understanding of culture is perpetually evolving. The change of cultural appropriation to cultural appreciation needs to be aided by maintaining respect, eliminating ignorance and keeping woke. A culture does not exist without its people.
I finally leave you with a quote by S. Alice Callahan, “No, no, my friend. You are kind, and you mean well, but you can never understand these things as I do. You've never been oppressed.”