Sometimes there’s a fine line between respecting another culture and appropriating it. Are tribal tattoos only appropriate for people with certain heritages? Should yoga be taken back to its Hindu roots and denied from Western practitioners? Does Taylor Swift have the right to be profiting from twerking?
These are interesting questions, but they’re not always easy to answer. Before we can understand these issues, let’s look at which cultural appropriations are straight up disrespectful, beyond any shadow of doubt.
Native American headdresses have been banned by a bunch of festivals, both internationally and in Australia, but a lot of people still don’t understand why it’s not okay to wear them. It’s sometimes portrayed as a complicated or trivial issue, but it’s actually really simple. So let me explain why it’s not okay to appropriate this particular cultural artefact.
As explained in this open letter to non-natives in headdresses, the headdress is a sacred cultural symbol with Native American cultures, generally reserved only for men who have earned the right to wear it.
As the author explains, the headdress is regarded similarly to a war medal, a bachelor’s degree or an important award. If you were to falsely claim that you’d achieved a medical degree and started working as doctor, you’d go to jail. And if you wore your grandparents’ war medals while bopping around at Splendour In The Grass, people would understandably be unhappy about it.
Not everybody knows the cultural context of the headdress, especially in Australia, and quite often the people who wear headdresses mean no harm. But now that you know the cultural value of this sacred symbol, wearing one is nothing short of disrespectful.
And the headdress is just one example of cultural appropriation.
“Blackface”—the act of painting your skin black for a fancy dress party or otherwise—is an example that’s far closer to home. The reason blackface is offensive is quite obviously racist. Not just because it’s a bit naff to paint your face another colour and imitate another culture, but because in Australia (and America), there is a racist history of white musicians imitating black musicians with blackface. They were called “blackfaced coon-singers” and were depicted in a severely humiliating way.
As Jirra Lulla Harvey, an Aboriginal academic and entrepreneur once put it, “[Blackface] is a hurtful and degrading history that denied our right to self-representation and helped to create the racial stereotypes that plague our nation today.”
But despite the obvious problems, people continue to appropriate blackface. Earlier this year the Frankston bombers football team were heavily criticised by rapper Adam Briggs for wearing blackface costumes to a function. And before that, it was Alice Kunek, a member of the Australian women’s basketball team who appropriated blackface, much to the dismay of her teammate Liz Cambage.
How to be respectful…
As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in Time, “Appreciating an individual item from a culture doesn’t translate into accepting the whole people.”
There are a few easy ways you can tell whether you are appreciating a culture or appropriating it. By enjoying another style of food, listening to foreign music or learning a new language, you are appreciating other cultures. If you have been invited to dress a certain way by the peoples of that culture, or if you need to wear certain items in, say, a religious building, that is being respectful.
What’s not okay is picking and choosing cultural fashion styles to seem ‘cooler’ or to wear as a costume, particularly if they have a deeper traditional meaning. If what you choose to wear, do or say will perpetuate cultural stereotypes, or if someone could potentially take offence to your actions, then chances are you shouldn’t be doing it. Simple as that.