New York Apparel Peopling of New York, Spring 2015

New York Apparel

Cultural Appropriation

The Thin Line Between Appreciation and Exploitation

By Alanna McAuliffe


In 1955, Elvis Presley released his debut studio album, a set of twelve raucous rockabilly numbers the likes of which had never been truly popular in mainstream America previously. Presley, who has since been dubbed the “King of Rock-and-Roll,” began to climb the charts, selling thousands of records, acquiring an enormous, zealous legion of fans. Rolling Stone described Presley’s cultural influence as “singlehandedly” changing the course of music history in the 1950s into the 60s. Certainly, magazines and radio stations clamored, Presley’s unique sound and style were revolutionary, something that Americans had never encountered before.

But Presley wasn’t a pioneer. He was a byproduct.

The unique vocal coloring and aching, bluesy twang of Presley’s hits were derived from the styles of African American-driven genres, such as rhythm and blues and gospel. Yet few black recording artists ever received the monetary compensation or widespread success that Presley found. Take for instance the original composer and performer of Presley’s breakout hit, “That’s All Right.” Arthur Crudup’s rendition of the song failed in gaining traction and, struggling to make it in music world, Crudup quietly returned to farm work. This was not an isolated incident; Ike Turner, an artist who worked alongside Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats on Rocket 88, a song widely considered to be the first rock-n-roll track ever recorded, said to have only received twenty dollars for his part in reshaping the music scene. There was no question; this was a typically black genre, generally ignored by the white masses.

In 1956, Presley himself noted, “The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doing now for more years that I know.”

Though the King was quick to rattle off the names of black recording artists as musical influences, it was still an inescapable fact that Presley had profited off of a genre that was largely ignored and dismissed by the white majority for some time. While black artists laid the foundation, white men like Presley adopted their sound and parroted it back into a microphone to huge success.

The conversation regarding race and rock-n-roll is one that’s spanned decades and is constantly up for debate amongst fans and scholars alike. However, it is also indicative of a much larger issue, a question that deals with power, prejudice, discrimination, appreciation, and exploitation. Presley’s “borrowing” of a cultural other is echoed today, as tempers flare and dissent grows regarding the concept of cultural appropriation.

What is Cultural Appropriation?

Perhaps the most clear-cut definition of cultural appropriation was given by Susan Scafidi, an author and law professor at Fordham University, who wrote as follows;

“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”

What Scafidi highlights in the latter part of her definition is absolutely key to the assessment of cultural appropriation in twenty-first century, particularly in regards to clothing and ethnic garb. In discussing the concept of cultural appropriation, many are quick to rush to the defense of those who adopt means of expression from cultures other than their own, stating that they’re just embracing diversity and appreciating a multitude of ethnic backgrounds. Yet the consistent decontextualization of particular groups has lead to a pattern of oppression, a cycle of caricatures, and a perpetuation of stereotypes, wherein traditional power dynamics are reinforced.

In essence, cultural appropriation is an extension of racist and imperialist themes that have prevailed for most of our nation’s time on the map; it is just that theft of land and life has shifted to include theft of culture as well. True appreciation can only exist was cross-cultural communication is possible without a slightly hierarchal edge; as interracial relations in the United States are still far from resembling a level playing field, it’s hard to argue that the borrowing of certain elements of cultural garb simply for “the aesthetic” or “the look” is entirely innocuous.


Inspiration or Exploitation? (Artist: Stephanie Mah)

Western culture requires many groups assimilate simply to survive; to look as whitewashed as possible so they may have a better chance at finding a job, avoiding abject discrimination, finding housing, and simply raising their families without major issue. Often, what is “ethnic” is typified as “exotic”, and soon enough, becomes a commodity to be cherrypicked for its most aesthetically pleasing parts and sold to the masses while the original group who put forth those cultural norms is stigmatized and marginalized. There is no cross-cultural communication; this is not diversity, this is not understanding nor respect. There is no deeper understanding of cultural meaning and context.

In a recent article for the Stanford Daily, Anja Young wrote, “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes of where it originated, but is deemed ‘high fashion,’ ‘cool’ or ‘funny’ when the privileged take it for themselves. When power is imbalanced, cultures are no longer mingling; they’re being redefined externally by louder voices.” Certainly, through the continuation of donning appropriative attire, we only narrow the cross-cultural dialogue, eliminating opportunities for true understanding while watering down massively significant cultural tokens, reducing their importance to nothing more than a high-fashion accessory to wear to the latest music festival.

The Influence of Pop Culture on Cultural Appropriation

Why open a conversation on clothing with an anecdote relating to musicians? After all, Presley did not wear costumes or garb that would be considered akin to that of a cultural other. It’s not as if white bejeweled jumpsuits and popped collars carry any sort of significant ethnic weight. However, in discussing the appropriation of cultural clothing, it’s important to turn to the figures in popular culture that dramatically influence trends and styles.

Over the past few years, it’s become clear that music and cultural appropriation are inextricably linked; clothing and the auditory arts have gone hand-in-hand since musicians hit the scene. Those who set the tone for what is “cool” and “in vogue” are largely responsible for the clothing that is manufactured, advertised, and marketed toward the everyday American. After all, there remains an age old question of whether media and the arts (including, to an inarguable degree, fashion and trends) follow the desires of the general public or whether they themselves set those precedents to be followed.

It’s worth restating that perhaps the most problematic aspect of cultural appropriation is the tug-of-war of power, identity, and recognition. As with the music of the 1950s and 1960s, the appropriation of significant cultural and religious garb is a form of exploitation where a majority capitalizes and commercials the minority, preserving the uneven balance of power while perpetuating destructive stereotypes.

Culture is not a costume; it is not a fad, it is not meant to be bought-and-sold. What a third party may see as a fashionable outfit may mean something incredibly significant to those who belong to the cultural group being mined for aesthetics. Appropriation is incredibly harmful and deteriorative to cultural identity and interethnic relations within the United States. It is as Richard Fung wrote in an 1993 essay, “The critique of cultural appropriation is first and foremost a strategy to redress historically established inequities by raising questions about who controls and benefits from cultural resources.”

Herein lies the fundamental difference between appreciation and appropriation. If one were particularly interested in expressing appreciation for a culture, surely they would go through the process of learning more about that particular background, including the significance and meaning behind certain articles of clothing or accessories. Appreciation does then exist; but it is appropriation which is all the more common in the United States, the “pick-and-choose” dynamic between cultural communities, where we select the small cultural tokens we find to be beautiful and decontextualize them, wearing them as a meaningless trinket.

Dr. Jessica Metcalfe, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa from North Dakota and writer for Beyond Buckskin, summarizes the deleterious longterm effects of cultural appropriation on perpetuating stereotypes.

When people know of us as only a “costume,” or something you dress up for a music video, then you stop thinking of us as people, and this is incredibly dangerous because every day we fight for the basic human right to live our lives without outsiders determining our fate or defining our identities.

Cultural appropriation is a concept that entails neither understanding nor mutuality. When a more powerful cultural group claims control of the symbols of marginalized groups, reinforced colonial and imperialistic themes. When culture is used as costumery in a way we find aesthetically pleasing with zero context, we create a “cultural other,” denying individuals their identities and their place in historical and sociopolitical context.

Fashion Bindi

Decontextualized bindis divorce the symbol from its cultural and religious meaning.

Examples and Illustrations


The bindi is one of the most oft-appropriated cultural symbols in the United States; it is also highly offensive when worn by non-Hindu women. Hindu statesman Rajan Zed stated

The bindi on the forehead is an ancient tradition in Hinduism and has religious significance. It is also sometimes referred to as “the third eye” or “the flame.” It is an auspicious religious and spiritual symbol. It is not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory aiming at mercantile greed.

Earlier this year, the hashtag #ReclaimTheBindi made its rounds on social media sites, with Hindu and South Asian women openly discussing the impact of appropriation on their everyday existence and interaction with other races. Women recounted stories of how they would be considered “dirty” or “foreign” for sporting the bindi while fair skinned fashion bloggers are now being labeled “hip,” “edgy,” and “exotic.”

One discussed, in particular, how, in 1987, the vicious, deplorable hate group Dotbusters went on a spree of violence in Jersey City, New Jersey, targeting Indian residents, their cruel name a mocking reference to the Bindi. At that time, wearing the Bindi had been a constant struggle for Hindu women, as they balanced holding their culture close to heart and saving themselves and their families from discrimination and violence. This form of discrimination is one that white women donning their “fashionable third eyes” to musical festivals have never, and likely, will never, have to face.

As others have pointed out, this is an incredibly restrictive, dangerous cycle. The Bindi is steeped in historical and religious context, a token that is of great importance to the identity of South Asian and Hindu women living across the globe.


Appropriation of the keffiyeh, a traditional Middle Eastern garment

Ignorance seems to be the dilemma in many cases of appropriation. Fashion-forward individuals may adopt a cultural token because it’s in vogue or trendy, completely neglecting to learn the historical or, even political, ties that the garment may have.

Take, for example, the keffiyeh, a scarf often seen amongst Arab and Muslim communities in the United States. The keffiyeh is a symbol of solidarity for those living outside of the Middle East; ex-patriates in the United States, for example, commonly don the scarf to identify themselves and show support for one another. It is also worth noting that the keffiyeh is an incredibly politically-charged garment, carrying with it symbols of the Palestinian resistance and decades of historical conflict. In her article, “Why We Wear the Keffiyeh,” Nerdeen Kiswani explains the issue inherent in those who pick-and-choose the elements of culture they find aesthetically pleasing without understanding the enormous impact that those garments may have on a cultural community.

Often when Muslims and Arabs express their solidarity by wearing a keffiyeh we are berated and denounced as inherently violent. Those who do not belong to either group and wear it are either considered terrorist sympathizers or simply chic, hipster, edgy, and even fashion forward. Most do not even know what it means and can easily discard it when it is not in season anymore, while we live with it our entire lives…This cultural appropriation is especially angering because it was simply another fashion trend which people followed because it was in style. A solidarity staple was donned around the necks of people who did not even acknowledge the Palestinian struggle. The sentimental value was ripped to shreds when many stores carried it in different styles and colors.


Elements of Asian culture, particularly geisha traditional geisha imagery, is constantly appropriated and hypersexualized, denying tradition in place of fetishization.

Another disturbing trend amongst designers and fashionistas is adopted highly sexualized versions of cultural garments and garb, as is common with the garb of East Asian cultures.

Foreign women are often made to seem “exotically beautiful,” a phrase which simultaneously objectifies and decontextualizes. Exotification is dehumanizing, a complete erasure of individuality, identity, and cultural context. When the ethnic majority, who seemingly control popular control, infuse media and fashion with constant caricatures and costumes, these exotic stereotypes are reinforced, making it more and more difficult for those within those cultural communities to climb out of the marginalized box they’ve been placed into.

The modern conversation on appropriation was spurred by the growing popularity of wearing Native American headdresses as a fashion accessory.

The modern conversation on appropriation was spurred by the growing popularity of wearing Native American headdresses as a fashion accessory.

As stated earlier, there is an indisputable correlation between imperial and colonial powers and appropriation. The very case that brought up the cultural appropriation conversation was rooted in this, quite literally in our own backyard. At outdoor music festivals, such as Coachella, patrons were widely criticized for donning Native American headdresses. Simon Moya-Smith, a journalist and citizen of the Oglala Lakota highlights the significance that comes with face paint and headdresses:

The headdress is reserved for our revered elders who, through their selflessness and leadership, have earned the right to wear one. It’s a spiritual garb, not just cultural; it’s not merely an addition to one’s attire. Wearing one, even an imitation headdress, belittles what our elders have spent a lifetime to earn.

Moreover, this isn even more egregious affront on an ostracized, marginalized group as Native Americans have such a storied, bloody past regarding the theft of not only land and life, but, over time it seems, their culture as well. Jennifer Weston of Cultural Survival sums it up brilliantly:

“Our ancestors and our parents survive attempted genocide (for their lands) and severe discrimination (for our languages and spirituality). So to pretend that we’re fictional characters vs. real people from real cultures is not only offensive, and racist, it’s a vicious act suppressing our lived realities as Native peoples, and an appropriation of our very identities.”

The hypersexualization of the burqa has been criticized for eroding context in favor of fashion, and the "mystery" associated with "exotic" cultures.

The hypersexualization of the burqa has been criticized for eroding context in favor of fashion, and the “mystery” associated with “exotic” cultures.

To commodify so recklessly is to completely disregard and alienate entire culture groups. Minority groups are so often made to feel as if an expression of their own cultural identity will ostracize themselves further and make them a target for discrimination. Why then, is it suitable for the majority to dominate pop culture with “fashionable” version of these garments, made to seem “edgy” and “stylish” when those of a different skin tone or background model them? Quite simply, cultural appropriation is symptomatic of a societal ill, an engrained debate between prejudice and privilege.

One of the most prevalent forms of cultural appropriation, however, is one that is oft-unacknowledged. The appropriation of black culture in the United States has been on the up-tick, as the white majority claims aspects of the culture that they find aesthetically or expressively pleasing and applies them haphazardly, disregarding the deep cultural dies and connections associated with these garments and styles. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the majority do not face discrimination for these styles; it is not “ghetto” or “ratchet” if a white woman dons cornrows or if a white man wears a do-rag or dreadlocks – rather, it’s cited as “unique,” “high fashion,” or, at the very least, “funny.” Ironically and unfortunately, the negative stigmas and stereotypes only seem to exist when the clothing is worn by the very culture it originated in. It’s as actress Amandla Stenberg comments in her video, “Don’t Cash Crop on my Cornrows.”

“That itself is what is so complicated when it comes to black culture. The line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is always going to be blurred. But here’s the thing: Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.”

Those who have initiated the debate about cultural appropriation find themselves constantly attacked, rebuttals citing hypersensitivity and a diligent societal aim to stay politically correct at all times. But the argument against cultural appropriation has little to do with remaining PC and unoffensive; rather, it exposes our own engrained individual ignorances and opens up a cross-cultural conversation regarding very real societal imbalances in power. Appropriation is harmful because it invalidates entire cultural communities, completely distorts and diminishes storied ethnic histories into often false, decontextualized caricatures, commodifies significant cultural tokens (and, it is worth nothing that, to add insult to injury, this commodification in no way economically benefits the cultural groups from which said tokens originate), and simultaneously reducing and romanticizing.

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