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Adopting features from other cultures is a normal, human result of contact between communities. It represents a dynamic and thriving society” (Sherwood, par. 1). Cultural appropriation may clearly be described as the copying or exchanging of culture, which means that it is not always a bad thing. The troubling part of appropriation is the casual use of religious and cultural iconography by modern media and the fashion industry without first consulting the people from which the culture came. As a consequence, the society and its environment are distorted and misrepresented. It also often reemphasizes stereotypes and rehashes the marginalisation of the people belonging to minority groups who represent these cultures. Cultural appropriation should therefore only be used with the consultation, collaboration and consent of the custodians of the culture being cited.

The concept and meaning of cultural appropriation has evolved over the decades. Those who are opposed to it consider it to be exploitation of culture and sacred symbols of a people and their traditions. In their view the only people who benefit are the appropriators through commercialisation of culturall elements of the minority groups they harvest inspiration from. Supporters of the appropriation movement prefer to call it an ‘appreciation’ of culture instead. Celebrities are considered the most notorious offenders of cultural appropriation. In her article The Do’s and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation, Jenni Avins uses Selena Gomez wearing a bindi (a red dot commonly worn on the centre of the forehead by Jain and Hindu women) as an illustration to demonstrate how the “appropriation police” exaggerate the negativity associated with culture sharing or borrowing.

Avins describes how her daily morning routine incorporates an infusion of various cultures from across the globe in different ways. She elaborates on this view in saying: “As I dress in the morning, I deeply appreciate the craftsmanship and design behind these items, as well as the adventures and people they recall”, (Avins, par. 4). The sincerity in this statement can easily be proved to be false. On an ordinary morning while one prepares for their day, who has the time to “deeply” think about or even appreciate the “craftsmanship and design” of an item of clothing they have decided to wear or the type of hairstyle one chooses for that day? Surely Avins is not saying that every morning she takes time to recall (in the assumption that she actually knows) the history behind the culture and people who are responsible for the choice of fashion item and style she opts to adorn? Avins is perpetuating a common fallacy frequently committed by defenders of cultural appropriation in debates; and the meaning and understanding of the concept is often confused or even forgotten. Many people, including the representatives of the minority groups whose cultures is adopted will confirm that they are not against other groups appropriating their symbols; the main problem they have is the thoughtless and insensitive use of cultures without paying homage to its origins. The focus then, of Avins “morning routine” point is based on the assumption that minorities are completely against the notion of cultural appropriation and that is often not the case.

When Selena Gomez decided to put a bindi on her forehead, was she conscious of the meaning and significance of it to the culture it originated from? Was her aim to celebrate the culture of Jain and Hindu women? Was she mindful of the societal impact of the actions of a person in her position of influence in society would have by wearing this symbol? Did she consider whether it was acceptable for an “outsider” like her to use the symbol for purposes other than the one it was created for? The answer to these questions is no, and there lies the problem of appropriating another peoples tradition or culture without consent and consultation. A bindi is not just another seasonal trending fashionable accessory; to the Hindu and Jain it has significance and its meaning should not be lost when it is worn in the guise of appropriation.

The fashion industry is another case in point. Fashion designers rarely come up with original ideas for their collections. Inspiration is drawn from all walks of life but the sources used mainly represent cultures that are considered exotic in relation to the society in which these garments will be showcased. What many designers fail to understand is that the negligent use of a people’s cultural symbols and artefacts reinforces segregation and stereotypes already suffered by these groups. There is a fine line between imitation and inspiration and designers need to know on which side of the line their designs fall before they send their sketches to production. The phrase “imitation is a sincere form of flattery” can no longer be quoted as a supporting argument for cultural appropriation, the issue is much deeper than this deduction. The adoption of elements of one cultural group is often carried out by a ‘dominant’ group, typically representing Western hegemony. “It’s the trivialisation of ideas, images and styles from other cultures, which debases their original significance in the name of vanity”, (Sherwood, par. 3).

A clear example of this is the Dolce and Gabbana Spring 2013 Collection where the internationally acclaimed designers opted for caricatured colonial accessories. Models walked the runway wearing Blackamoor style earrings that had severed heads of black women dangling from the ears of white faces. The collection was lambasted for having racist undertones and the designers’ celebration of an era in history many frown upon was considered grossly insensitive towards the black race.

Valentino’s Collection at Paris Fashion Week which showcased a brigade of white models with their hair styled in cornrows (a hairstyle typically worn by people with African hair) and wearing garments clearly inspired by African design. The objectionable aspect of this collection is how the designers deliberately neglected to use African models to showcase the beauty of Africa. If the intention was indeed to celebrate African heritage, why did the designers opt to use models that look nothing like the people whose culture these designs represent? “But what does it mean to “steal” someone’s culture when we’re not talking about money?”John McWorther states this point in his essay You Can’t Steal a Culture: in Defence of Cultural Appropriation. Using this logic, Valentino successfully “stole” a culture by exploiting its creativity and ideas for the sake of making money. “The African American actress Amandla Stenberg’s offered an eloquent discourse on the complex cultural context of cornrows. But the real problem at Valentino was not the hair; it was the conspicuous absence of women of color on the runway. Lack of diversity is an issue for the entire industry”, (Avins, par. 22).

The Benefits of Cultural ‘Sharing’ Are Usually One-Sided summarizes the views of Adrienne Keene in her piece about cultural appropriation. “It wasn’t until 1978 with the passing of the Native American Religious Freedom Act that we were even allowed to legally practice our spirituality or keep sacred feathers, two elements often “borrowed” by outsiders”, (Keene, par. 1). Keene, a member of the Cherokee Nation, further explains that the Native American headdress has been borrowed so often by the non-native public that it has lost its spiritual significance: “For the communities that wear these headdresses, they represent respect, power and responsibility. The headdress has to be earned, gifted to a leader in whom the community has placed their trust”, (Keene, par. 5). In modern society the headdress has become a ‘cheap commodity anyone can buy and wear to a party’ without considering the history and meaning of its design. Keene is not opposed to the incorporation of Native American symbolism in media or the arts, what she proposes is that designers and media companies should join in partnership and collaboration in the manner in which Native American communities are represented appropriately.

A good example of collaboration is the Osklen Spring 2016 Collection where Oscar Metsavaht’s worked closely with the Asháninka tribe and representatives of the community formed part of the creative process of behind the collection. “Francisco Piyako, an Asháninka representative, told Quartz the tribe will get royalties from Osklen’s spring 2016 collection, as well as a heightened public awareness of their continued struggle to protect land against illegal loggers and environmental degradation”, (Avins, par. 28). The partnership between the designer and community guaranteed that the Asháninka tribe was represented in an honourable way.

The ambiguity in cultural appropriation is one of the reasons behind misappropriation of minority cultures, but this inappropriate use of culture can be avoided. Thorough research and engaging in dialogue with members of the community will reduce the risk of perpetuating stereotypes and catalysing further stigmatisation against minority groups. And therefore in order to ensure that cultural appropriation is executed in a sensitive and respectable manner, one should consult, collaborate and seek consent from the cultural group and in that way the culture will sincerely be celebrated and the heritage treated with honor. If designers and celebrities alike want to celebrate and appreciate the cultures they draw inspiration from, then collaboration, not imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Works Cited

Source: .Avins, Jenni. “The Do’s and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation”. The Atlantic. . Accessed 7 April 2017

Source: Keene, Adrienne. “The Benefits of Cultural ‘Sharing’ Are Usually One-Sided”. The New York Times. . Accessed 7 April 2017

Source: Mannie, Sierra. “Dear White Gays”. The DM Online. .Accessed 7 April 2017

Source: McWorther, John. “You Can’t ‘Steal’ A Culture: In Defence of Cultural Appropriation”. The Daily Beast. . Accessed 7 April 2017

Source: Sherwood, Josephine. “Appreciation or Appropriation”. NJAL. . Accessed: 7 April 2017

October 07, 2021

Life Sociology

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