Is one person’s identity another’s accessory?

Dreadlocks, bindis, traditional African prints, kimonos, Arabic scripture. You name it, you’ve seen it appropriated somewhere. Whether it’s from high fashion or from those trashy awards shows you’ve been watching, people are borrowing elements from other cultures, stripping away history and meaning.

Cultural appropriation is when members of a dominant group exploit the culture of a less privileged group, often with little understanding of its traditions. Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University and author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, describes cultural appropriation as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, for example, sacred objects.”

Using the term loosely, “borrowing” elements from a different culture, whether it’s physically apparent or integrated into some art form, doesn’t go over easy for a couple of reasons: it usually highlights an unequal power dynamic, and it can be insensitive.

Appropriating from other cultures is problematic because when done by a majority group, it robs minority groups of the credit they deserve. Art forms taken from less-dominant groups come to be associated with members of the powerful one. As a result, this dominant group is deemed innovative or edgy, while the less-dominant group continues to face negative stereotypes typically reinforced by this cultural “borrowing.” For instance, a Western person is considered “quirky” or “innovative” for wearing a keffiyeh, while a Middle-Eastern person wearing the same scarf is dismissed and labelled a “terrorist.”

The other problem with cultural appropriation is that it emphasizes the remnants of the power imbalance between dominant groups and historically marginalized ones. Consider, for instance, how white musicians borrowed the musical stylings of African-American counterparts. Since African Americans weren’t widely accepted in U.S. society during the last century, in the entertainment industry this led to whites becoming successful producing jazz and rhythm and blues, despite black musicians being pioneers of these art forms.

Some might say that this borrowing isn’t actually offensive, and, according to fashion scholar Minh-Ha T. Pham, “There’s a big problem with critiques of cultural appropriation. They reaffirm the very thing they intend to oppose: white Western domination over and exploitation of culture at the expense of everyone else.” Pham states that people assume there is a hierarchical relationship, when sometimes it’s just creative folk inspired by other creative folk. The case for this should be cultural exchange, but this requires a more linear and dual-sided exchange between two cultures, while in actuality this would require equal borrowing between the two cultures.

The issue with this train of thought is that cultural appropriation not only reinforces the dichotomy between dominant powers and minority groups, but strips the meaning of many art forms to benefit the dominant group only. Often the significance of culturally important symbols is lifted, and the items are then transformed into mainstream trends. The people who end up wearing the trend often have no link to the culture that it came from. As British-Asian photographer Sanaa Hamid explores in her work, certain items of clothing have deep connections to an individual’s identity. Items like turbans are taken by others and used solely for superficial purposes, such as “an expression of color and […] something beautiful.” On the other hand, some whose identity is tied to the item respond, “My turban is for honor, self-respect […] It is our identity as sikhs.”

Members of the dominant group can assume the traditional garb of a minority, for example, for a Halloween costume or fashion trend; however, they remain blissfully unaware of the origins of such clothes and the challenges that those who originated from those culture have faced in Western culture.