In mid August when Meredith Music Festival announced a ban on Native American headdresses as part of its ‘No Dickheads’ policy, the old chestnut of cultural appropriation popped back into the public sphere. Not that it had travelled all that far in the year since Miley decided twerking was a white girl thing, in the ten years since the punk kids of Flinders street station felt a Keffiyeh went well with their haircuts, or nearly twenty years since Gwen Stefani wore a bindi in the videoclip for ‘Don’t Speak’, and sparked a fashion trend which still seems to carry a cultural currency in 2014.
The topic of cultural appropriation gets a lot of flack as being too politically correct, and indeed it would be much easier to write it off as such. We are a globalised community living in a world where everything; our speech, our food, our furniture, our music, our sex, and of course our clothes are in some way imbued with the influence of another culture. This is a beautiful thing and a thing to be celebrated, so it can seem confusing when certain aspects of this magnificent mish mash are singled out as inappropriate and insensitive.
It seems strange that a topic with so much precedence (I’ve gone back 20 years in pop culture but we could go back 200 to German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann dressing his wife up as ‘Helen of Troy’), only receives sensationalist media attention every time a pop star ‘discovers’ the style of kabuki or dia de los muertos. Cultural appropriation has been around for a long time, and has had far more insidious and far reaching implications than as a topic of the zeitgeist or a fleeting fancy of the oversensitive left.
Cultural appropriation is a form of modern colonialism. When the West colonised the East and Africa in the nineteenth century, they established a hierarchy with the coloniser at the top and the colonised on the bottom. The colonizer had the authority to choose all social norms in all senses; what was white and what was savage was defined and enforced upon, and eventually internalized by colonised society. When you choose to wear a cultural item you are exercising your white privilege to curate. You, the wearer are choosing to highlight one aspect of a culture, and reject all others. The emphasis on this one aspect means you are creating a kind of costume, a caricature of an entire culture. You, the wearer have assembled this costume by exercising your white privilege to decide what is, and what isn’t a representation of something, rendering the rest of the culture invisible.
Take the Native American war bonnet. Although it is still ritually used by modern Native Americans, when bikini clad waifs go running around Meredith in it, they perform a kind of Hollywood historical fantasy. This fantasy comes at the exclusion of all other kinds of modern and historical Native American people, who may not wear war bonnets regularly or at all. Making the choice to wear a headdress is the choice to play out a white curated Native Indian fantasy, and to render all other kinds of Native Americans; lawyers, teachers, athletes, and students, culturally invisible.
Perhaps more dangerously, by choosing to culturally appropriate you are exoticizing a culture, deeming them as the ‘Other’. When you choose to wear something you wouldn’t normally wear as costume, you are drawing a line between what is normal (you) and what is ‘Other’ (all other cultures and races). When this line is drawn, the seeds of racism are planted. Wearing another culture as costume allows the ’Other’ to be raised up as a white fantasy. (The bindi wearing Indian princess, the noble savage, the freedom fighter) or just as equally, cast aside as a ‘thing’ unequal to yourself; less intelligent, less worthy, less human.
Colonialism and the postcolonial reaction which followed it have shaped modern society. The foundations of globalization were laid in the actions of, and reactions to colonialism. This is a great thing, but colonialism has also done a great deal of cultural and social damage. Everything we do in modern society carries echoes of our colonial past and cannot be ignored. Because we reap the privilege of a globalised community, we have a responsibility to be conscious of our past, and where our privilege comes from.