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Cultural appropriation and you: festival season

Apr. 4, 2017
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Spring is already upon us, and as festival season approaches we could all use a refresher course on cultural appropriation--or, rather, on how to avoid it and still have fun. Avoiding cultural appropriation isn’t just a matter of passing inspection by the PC Police; it’s about being respectful to those around you and remaining mindful of the messages you’re sending through the way you costume yourself in a public setting. So with that in mind, let’s figure out what to wear with pride and what to donate back to the thrift store. This will be quick and painless, I promise!

General Rule: If the item or look in question is traditionally used by a community or culture other than your own to express religious beliefs, political statements, or respected status within that culture, leave it alone.

Sounds easy enough, right? But it gets a little more complicated when you keep in mind the fact that many popular commercially-sold items disregard the rule above. To that I say: just because you can buy it ready-to-wear doesn’t mean you should. By understanding the implications of those items and why we should steer clear, we can all avoid looking like insensitive fools this festival season. 


Use race as a mascot. Right off the bat, one of the most commonly cited forms of cultural appropriation is the Native American headdress or war bonnet. It is now pretty common knowledge, as it should be, that the people native to this country have been victims of innumerous atrocities--first at the hands of European settlers, then courtesy of the U.S. Military and (to this day!) the federal government. Even now, the current administration has granted a green light to the infamous Dakota Access Pipeline, which will desecrate sacred lands and pose a threat to the safety of the drinking water of the indigenous peoples of Standing Rock. As a severely marginalized people, the Native Americans have fought diligently in the face of great adversity to preserve their culture. The war bonnet is a symbol of reverence, leadership and bravery and is awarded to those who exemplify those qualities. It is not a fashion statement to be mass-produced inexpensively and sold to naïve festival-goers in search of Instagram-worthy accessories. Respect is central to Native American cultural beliefs, and wearing a war bonnet while guzzling canned beer and fist-bumping along to house music is blatantly offensive. Plain and simple. 

Collect benefits while rejecting consequences. Appropriation of black culture is pervasive in mainstream media. Even though white folks seem to love everything about blackness and black culture, they still regard the black community with suspicion and are reluctant to defend black people in the face of institutionalized racism. Similarly, black hair has been deeply immersed in political discourse and cultural significance since time immemorial. Dreadlocks, cornrows and micro-braids are all widely recognizable black hairstyles that have been adapted by commercial fashion to sell a stolen look for profit. Fashion industries routinely borrow from black culture to create an ‘edgy’ or ‘urban’ look which they then market using white models--never mind that people of color have been rocking these looks for ages, and instead of being hailed as trendsetters they have been openly discriminated against because of it.

Dreadlocks are perhaps the most pervasive example of this appropriative process. Traditionally, dreadlocks were used to symbolize the mane of the Lion of Judah, which is a central figure in the Rastafarian faith. However, the message behind the hairstyle has become so convoluted that it is often seen to represent stoner culture rather than a culturally significant religious symbol. Furthermore, hair texture is a major factor in the success of these hairstyles. Fine, oily and straight hair all require massive amounts of maintenance to be dreaded, and it is not uncommon for types of mold to grow within the dreads if not properly formed and maintained. Likewise, cornrowing or micro-braiding with extensions in thin hair is an insanely time-consuming and difficult process--not to mention that the look won’t last very long and can cause massive amounts of damage to your scalp. If your head can’t support it and you’re not the leader of a Black liberation movement, move on. 

Wear another culture’s articles as costuming. Traditional South Asian clothing and jewelry has become very popular among people outside of desi cultures. Most often characterized by the Bindi, glittering gold chains, and prismatic jewels, much of this ornamentation is traditionally worn to signify a marital status or to adorn a bridal party. The Bindi rose to popularity among the festival crowd a few years ago when celebrities and other influencers wore jeweled dots on their foreheads as a type of costume jewelry. But it’s more than a stylish statement piece: the Bindi and its placement signify a higher consciousness--a reminder to keep your third eye open. While it is important to remember to ‘stay woke’ and all that, you can certainly do so without borrowing from South Asian culture. Just because you’ve taken psychedelics a few times does not mean you’re enlightened and/or exempt from the general rule. The only time you should be wearing a Bindi or nose chain is if you are marrying a South Asian partner or are a guest in a South Asian home. I don’t think an all-out rave in the desert qualifies on either of those grounds, although I suppose I could be wrong. 

Disrespect religious or cultural practices. For Muslim women, the headscarf is both a symbol of womanhood and an observation of faith in Islam. Often misrepresented as a symbol of gender oppression by our ethnocentric worldview, the word ‘hijab’  signifies modesty and morality as well as self-expression. In many parts of the world, the hijab is available in beautiful colors and patterns to punctuate women’s outfits since it is designed to be worn outside the house. The hijab covers a woman’s hair and neck outside of the immediate family setting, particularly when non-related men are around. Taking this into consideration, the purpose of the hijab is to communicate what many girls wish they had the ability to say out loud without jeopardizing their safety: “Please don’t look at me with disrespect. I don’t like it and I won’t accept it.” A few scholars who study Islam say The Quran does not expressly mandate the veiling of a woman’s head, but the majority of scholars say the hijab should be worn to discourage the eyes of passing men. In the wake of the recent rise in Islamophobia poisoning our country’s mentality, many Muslim women feel unsafe wearing hijab in public--which means they feel unsafe under the male gaze yet also unsafe covering themselves to divert it. When women who are not Muslim wear a headscarf as a fashion statement without fear of Islamophobic discrimination, it becomes a costume. However, it is understandable to want to divert the male gaze, and there are many culturally-sensitive ways to do that. Headwraps are absolutely permissible provided that the use of hijab or other culturally specific headwrap styles are avoided. There are a multitude of ways you can preserve modesty and symbolize your womanhood without borrowing from another community’s cultural practices. 

Simple adherence to respect at a default setting should tell you if what you’re wearing might be deemed offensive. You will hear people excuse cultural appropriation by saying things like “It’s just a hairstyle,” but if someone tells you that something you are doing is offensive to other people it is not up to you to decide whether your actions are appropriate or not. The ability to borrow from other cultures and receive accolades while the people from whom you’ve borrowed are discriminated against is an exercise of white privilege. You shouldn’t be celebrated for what others are berated for. That’s the easiest method for avoiding cultural appropriation. 


I can guarantee you that there are an infinite number of ways you can express yourself and dress to impress while staying within the guidelines. Think about it! There are a million things about your own culture that you can indulge in and embody in an individualistic way:

Incorporate elements from your own culture instead of someone else’s. Ask your parents/family members if they’ve salvaged any of their clothes from when they were your age. Chances are, they might fit you and look cool too.  That’s a way to not only clothe yourself but to familiarize yourself with your own culture directly. You don’t have to borrow from other cultures if you celebrate your own culture. 

Pursue an in-depth knowledge of cultures that are foreign to you. Help dissolve the stigmas and prejudices that you may have acquired, even subconsciously. Promote understanding between neighbors and harmony within your community. There are a variety of ways to respectfully explore cultures that are not your own, including: eating culturally specific food; exploring another culture’s music scene; learning another language; or even just asking questions. These are enriching educational experiences, and you are absolutely entitled to pursue them.  

Get DIY with your bad self. Crafting pieces of your costume on your own instead of relying on a store-bought look will result in a cooler Instagram picture than a plastic mass-produced nose chain anyway. It only takes a few YouTube tutorials to learn how to distress your own denim--or even make chainmail! There are a million DIY project possibilities that will set you apart from everyone else and you didn’t even have to borrow that from anyone. 

Hit up your local thrift shop. You would be amazed at how many lightly used and brand new items go directly to the thrift store. Suburban streets are lined with yard sales and estate sales every weekend. For some reason, an inordinate amount of clothing still ends up in landfills despite the fact that it’s probably perfectly wearable and even arguably fabulous. The clothes you find at garage sales are often old favorites that have been outgrown or even things people forgot they had. That’s part of the beauty; you couldn't replicate a second-hand outfit without concerted effort. It’s worth a trip or two when planning your festival attire, and it’s sustainable too. Second-hand pieces can be paired with newer items or altered into new styles which you can claim as your own. Plus, you’re doing the earth a favor, so you can use that to justify your excessive shopping and collecting. 

This festival season, lead by example by demonstrating that you’re conscious of cultural appropriation and willing to take a stand against it. This means bringing your friends into the conversation as well. Talking about why certain items are inappropriate and constructively advising your friends on how to be culturally sensitive can be the best way to get through to them, since it’s a personal conversation and not a public confrontation.

I’m not saying you should go yelling “Your outfit is racist!” at every possible opportunity (although that can sometimes be gratifying). People are going to learn at their own pace. People who are not asking questions are often not ready to learn or grow, and they will often act defensively at the suggestion that they’re acting inappropriately. But if you have the opportunity to mention that someone’s attire is offensive without causing a confrontation, consider doing so. At the end of the day, it’s important to choose your battles wisely: remember you don’t have to exhaust yourself over every contrarian you might encounter. Adhere to the qualities that are important to you--like respect, compassion and integrity. Just because some people are insensitive jerks doesn’t mean you have to be.