Updated: Oct 17
As Halloween approaches, we can already anticipate the age-old tradition of donning costumes that might not always hit the mark. The controversy surrounding these outfits harks back to the '90s when a white celebrity's choice to wear Native American attire at a Halloween bash ignited a media frenzy. Every year, this debate splits the internet into two camps: those who find it unacceptable and offensive, and those who adopt a more laissez-faire attitude, championing the idea of "Let people wear what they want."
Hollywood's Cultural Borrowing
Kim Kardashian's braided hairstyle that caused online backlash at the 2018 MTV Movie & TV awards.
In the world of entertainment, the spotlight often shines on celebrities who have faced recurrent backlash for appropriating elements of other cultures. Icons like Kim Kardashian have been criticized for their adoption of cultural features like box braids, lip fillers, and alleged plastic surgery, which mimic the features of Black women. Rapper Drake has also been called out for occasionally adopting a Caribbean accent in his music. Even Grammy-winning singer Ariana Grande found herself embroiled in a cultural appropriation scandal surrounding her "BBQ grill finger" Japanese hand tattoo.
The Flip Side: Cultural Appreciation
But it's not all criticism. Some individuals are celebrated for what's labeled as "cultural appreciation." The real question here is how to discern between appropriation and appreciation when it comes to adopting styles from diverse cultures.
What People Think
Tina Charisma, a seasoned author for Harper's Bazaar, delves into this issue in her thought-provoking article titled "Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Appreciation: What's the Difference?" Charisma suggests that cultural appropriation has deep roots in colonialism, where colonizers laid claim to territories and looted cultural artifacts for their own amusement and gain. This practice still lingers today, exemplified by the troubling dichotomy where Black women's braided hairstyles are labeled "unprofessional," while white women are celebrated for their bold choices in the media.
Perspective of local Fashion Designer
Fashion designer Shunji Roka adds his perspective, stating, "I personally don't have an issue with individuals from different backgrounds embracing traditional Asian clothing or specific hairstyles, like using chopsticks in their hair. It becomes problematic when these choices are made solely for attention-seeking purposes. When certain individuals, regardless of their background, adopt braids or dreadlocks, it may not be my personal preference, but one cannot prevent someone from choosing a particular hairstyle. In my view, if one comprehends the historical context and respects the culture by genuinely embracing it, it reflects appreciation or genuine interest. Conversely, if one lacks understanding and disregards the culture while adopting its elements solely for their perceived coolness, that's appropriation."
Beyond Fashion: The Consequences of Cultural Appropriation
Cultural appropriation transcends the realm of fashion and carries real-world consequences. It extends beyond white women wearing braids and adopting the personas of their favorite anime characters.
Savanna Parnell's Insightful Perspective
Savanna Parnell, a Psychology student at the University of Michigan, offers her illuminating perspective on this escalating issue. She says, "For African Americans, our history has never truly belonged to us, as we have lived in the shadow of white oppression for centuries, and our native history and culture have been obscured. African American culture emerged as a result, with its origins apparent to all. East Asians and Asian Americans often experience fetishization, particularly when their cultural elements enter the English-speaking sphere, leading to popularization and subsequent cultural appropriation of traits like eye shape, language, and clothing. For certain cultures, appropriation is more prevalent than appreciation due to how they are perceived by the public and the rest of the world."
The Hidden Dangers of Fetishization and Appropriation
Katy Perry's 2013 "geisha" themed performance that raised the eyebrows of the public. Image courtesy of Getty Images.
To many, fetishization and appropriation might appear as flattery, but it is essential to recognize that not all forms of praise are constructive. Racism takes on various forms, and it's crucial to engage in thoughtful reflection on whether one's actions contribute to harm or goodwill when interacting with elements of other cultures.
Before adding a culturally significant piece to your wardrobe, consider the words of Kennedy Campbell, an MSU student: "Cultural appreciation is taking the time to learn about a culture and respectfully engage in their practices. Appropriation is the ignorant adoption of one's culture and ideas."
As we navigate the fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation, let's strive for greater understanding and respect for the diverse tapestry of our world.