Cultural appropriation is difficult to define, so many don’t understand what it is and how damaging it can be. Due to the lack of credit, the minority group affected by it might not receive benefits such as money or recognition and the future generations may never know the impact their people had. The confusing part about all of this is that anything can be seen as cultural appropriation. It is a socially constructed word like “racism,” “oppression,” or “justice” with its meaning changed based on the person. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “cultural appropriation is the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect the culture.” This happens often and is more common than you might think. We see it throughout fashion, media, social events like Coachella, and even in your favorite Disney films. Cultural appropriation is everywhere and considered offensive but there is a fine line for what is too much when it comes to this topic.
In fashion, artists and designers have been incorporating culture from different backgrounds for years. Marc Jacobs came up with a new trend, mini buns that are very similar to Bantu knots, a hairstyle used by African Americans and the black community. This trend is receiving negative backlash because the hairstyle isn’t professional and Bantu knots and braids are said to look dirty and unkempt. When hairstyles like this were considered “high fashion” it was inappropriate because Marc Jacob’s was going to be known for “creating” a hairstyle that has been around for ages. This is a good example of society not giving credit to African Americans and the black community for something that has been around for a long time. If a person knowingly uses another group’s cultural elements to profit without acknowledging that other group it is cultural appropriation. A race is a social construct that relates to the way humans identify each other. Jacobs used the idea and mannerism from a culture that is not biologically his own in order to gain recognition. That hairstyle is part of black culture and cultural appropriation is about the intent and content.
Similarly, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts festival that takes place in southern California is one of the more common events known for this type of negative attention from the media. There are trends associated with the festival that is an obvious appropriation of Native American culture. The festival allows attendees to rent out colorful teepees to camp out in and featured several in attendance like Beyonce and Victoria’s Secret model Alessandra Ambrosio who donned traditional Native American headdresses and apparel. The bindi, which is a South Asian cultural symbol has been the accessory of choice for many in attendance like Selena Gomez. Many have shared their views on why this is a problem but ultimately, these symbols exist for a reason, and wearing them casually to appear edgy or cool is ignorant. At Coachella, the whole point of the festival is that those in attendance can wear whatever they want and express themselves in any way. Lind says that “more often than not, such renderings have more to do with Euro-American interpretations and preoccupations than with indigenous cultures.” Coachella’s fashion and trends are supposed to be a combination of self-confidence, self-expression, and teen rebellion. Instead, it can also be seen as one of the most offensive American festivals in California.
There’s an entire debate over cultural territory and if artists should create outside of their own cultural experience. Can a male author write from a woman’s point of view? Is it appropriate if an Asian-American musician incorporates African and South American rhymes and sounds? One side of this debate is that if an artist hasn’t experienced something, he or she can’t write/paint/sing about it. The other side is that that we are not supposed to be restricting an artists freedom of expression or imagination. Cultural ideas should be freely exchanged and when labeling something as cultural appropriation it is important to understand that things like music and art come from several backgrounds and even change with time. Rap music came out of the black oppression in New York City in the early ’70s and is very much a part of the black culture. This does not mean that others can not create or enjoy this music also. Other races should not be barred from allowing rap music into their own culture.
Disney has been known to diversify its characters which has sustained the success of the films and brand. The first ever princess was Snow White back in 1937 and it wasn’t until 55 years later, in 1992 that the company featured its first princess of color, Jasmine from Aladdin. Jasmine’s character casting was considered whitewashing because she was voiced by Linda Larkin, a white voice actor which is also the case for many other princesses. Because of this and several other instances, Disney has been accused, rightly so, of cultural appropriation.
Disney recently introduced its first Polynesian princess, Moana in 2016. She is the first princess without a romantic interest and the film was praised for its progressive premise. Disney is trying to create a more diverse community within its cast of characters which results in ethnic stereotyping. In the past, Disney was faced with controversial claims over how they portrayed different cultures and ethnicities such as Native American in Pocahontas and Chinese in Mulan and Moana isn’t much different and there are certain aspects of the film that aligns with stereotypes of the Polynesian culture. The character Maui, from the film, received the most backlash because of his oversized, heavily tattooed appearance. The supporting argument behind his character is that Maui is a demi-god, he’s not an average individual which is why he appears large and muscular. The character’s tattoo’s in the film tell a story as well which helps the characters in the end so there is a proper reason for creating the character in this way.
Although the character itself could pass as non-offensive, the Maui Halloween costume that was part of the merchandise line was removed quickly from stores due to cultural appropriation. This costume included a shark necklace, a hula skirt, and brown skin complete with Maui’s tribal tattoos. Several were outraged upon the release and Polynesians were disappointed that Disney was marketing their skin color as part of a children’s costume. A Youtuber and Native Hawaiian Chelsie Haunani Fairchild was the first of many others to compare the costume with blackface in her Youtube video shedding light on this issue. Disney since then had removed not only the Maui costume but several other similar styles like t-shirts, pajamas, and sweatshirts from the shelves. They also offered an apology saying that “The team behind ‘Moana’ has taken great care to respect the cultures of the Pacific islands that inspired the film, we regret that the Maui costume has offended some. We sincerely apologize.” What started off as an appreciation for the Polynesian culture quickly turned into unintentional misrepresentation.
During Halloween, it has been an ongoing battle with what is considered offensive when it comes to costume selection. In other cases, there has been negative backlash for white children dressing up as Mulan or Jasmine in the past labeling the costume ideas as offensive. I personally don’t think the films or dressing up as your favorite Disney princess is considered appropriation. Moana is a children’s movie and it’s inevitable that children are going to want to dress up as a princess for Halloween or birthdays. In my perspective, I have family members that live in Disney merchandise year-round and adore Mulan and the film. If they want to dress up like her for Halloween it shouldn’t raise any flags and does not count as cultural appropriation as long as the costume isn’t offensive. It is okay to dress up as the characters as long as it is done respectfully.
All in all, we as a society are recognizing things like cultural appropriation more as time goes by and there is nothing to do other than learn from the mistakes of the past to be able to live in peace and harmony in the melting pot that is America. Stereotyping and cultural appropriation go hand in hand and we see this throughout my examples but if every group could only use what they’ve been given credit for we would have less inclusion and more segregation. Not everything should be taken offensively but we should also respect each other’s cultures and pasts, giving credit wherever necessary. Instead of segregating cultures and attempting to function as completely separate races of people, I believe that we should learn from them and operate as one single race; we are the human race after all.
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