The effect of cultural appropriation on successful cultural exchange
The term ‘cultural appropriation’ is one that ignites controversy and division, exacerbated by ambiguities caused by the numerous definitions that are attributed to it. Cultural appropriation, for the purposes of this article, will be taken to mean the adoption or theft of icons, rituals, symbols and behaviour from one culture by another. As is evident from this definition, this is not always prima facie a negative and harmful thing. Instead, an immense difficulty arises in pinpointing when appropriation is respectful and appreciative and when it is exploitative. Furthermore, it is important to consider whether the perpetuation of the notion of certain forms of cultural appropriation being unacceptable prevents the successful exchange of cultures within a multicultural society and unnecessarily demonises those who see it as appreciation. In order to do this, I will consider the ways in which certain forms of cultural appropriation can cause offence through distorting the meaning of cultural symbols, and also how it can reinforce privilege within the context of an asymmetrical relationship between two cultures.
When trying to understand the ways in which cultural appropriation can be perceived as exploitative or offensive, it is useful to take into account the nature of the relationship between the culture being appropriated and the culture doing the appropriating. This is particularly relevant within the context of a neo-colonialist society, shaped by a past in which Western countries endeavoured to impose their cultures onto others and to shape the cultures of the countries under domination. Many writers now see the representation of certain cultures within Western consumer markets as reinforcing the dominance of the colonising culture, with commodification resulting in certain cultures being reduced to fashion trends or stereotypes which ignore their depth and diversity (or are wholly inaccurate). This is exemplified by the commonplace sale of the Native American headdress, which contributes towards reducing broader Native American culture to an image of an extinct and spiritual race, undermining its rich history and also its present-day forms. The appropriation of the headdress also reveals ignorance about Native American history and culture: the headdress was only a feature of the Plains tribes’ culture, when there are over 566 federal Indian nations in the United States with distinct cultures, ethnicities and languages. The version of the culture perpetuated by its commodification also overlooks the fact that the current Native American population is made up of distinct groups, each with differing socio-economic circumstances and a different relationship to American society. The headdress is presented by Western markets as a fashion accessory, ignoring its intended symbolism of honour, bravery and strength. This degradation can also be seen in items of clothing depicting Hindu gods, which reduce an entire religion to an exotic fashion statement made by those who are not themselves religious.
As Edward Said wrote in Orientalism, romanticised images of subaltern cultures depicted by a dominant culture reinforce a schism which regards those geographical areas as fundamentally different to the West. This categorisation of those cultures as ‘other’ does not facilitate a beneficial and successful exchange of cultures, but instead perpetuates the inequality of the relationship. This is also why even the commodification of items which can clearly be attributed to a particular culture but are not deemed to carry any immense cultural meaning is deemed to be problematic by many.
It is interesting to consider the role that capitalism plays in orchestrating this cultural degradation. As Rogers argues in his article ‘From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A review and Reconceptualisation of Cultural Appropriation’, under the conditions of capitalism, any object that enters the exchange system is inescapably commodified and its value abstracted. In this process, the use-value and the specificity of the labour and social relations invested in the commodity are lost and it becomes equivalent to all other commodities. It is inevitable within this context that the cultural value of something is degraded, as the drive for profit silences dialogue on maintaining respect for its cultural meaning or significance, and consumers are consequently unaware of their participation in the exploitation of others’ culture and identity. This can be mitigated to some extent by consumers’ awareness of their choices, as that helps to prevent the offensive reduction of other cultures that occurs when profits are prioritised.
The neo-colonialist context in which cultural appropriation takes place is also relevant to whether it can be seen to constitute an exercise of privilege; this is another reason why it may be deemed to be harmful, rather than a mere manifestation of appreciation for another culture. Many writers argue that ethnic clothes and hairstyles are only deemed to be fashionable in our society when adopted by certain Western fashion industries. This certainly appears to be a plausible argument, and indeed I, myself, would never have considered wearing a bindi outside the context of an Indian social event before it was recently made popular by its use as a quirky fashion item, worn largely by white women. Although the introduction of these cultural symbols in mainstream Western fashion can be construed as a positive thing, constituting a long-overdue acceptance of certain elements of Indian style, it nevertheless highlights the unequal relationship which still exists between the two cultures, and hence the sensitivity that must be deployed before wearing a bindi.
The existence of this inequality, and the need for awareness of it, can be further supported by a recent advert for the clothing company Diesel, featuring a white female model with tattoos donning a burqa as part of a campaign which seeks to “baptise a new era of energy, bravery and bold iconography at Diesel”. In this context, the burqa is perceived as being ‘edgy’ and ‘rebellious’ because it is stripped of its cultural and religious significance and worn by a non-Muslim woman. Conversely, when Muslim women wear burqas, they are marginalised and deemed to be oppressed and unable (or unwilling) to make any attempt to integrate. This clearly affirms the inequality which underlies numerous forms of cultural appropriation, and the question therefore remains: can there ever be a successful and beneficial exchange of cultures in a context such as this?
Certainly, cultural appropriation appears to be more clear-cut in some cases. For example, T-shirts sold by the American clothing company Urban Outfitters depicting Hindu gods are arguably more objectionable than white women adorning saris. This is perhaps due to the immensely clear religious and cultural significance of the former, which is being distorted, and the largely stylistic nature of the latter. However, difficulties arise when attempting to distinguish between exploitation and appreciation, particularly due to fears that if the bar for appreciation is set too high, there can never be a beneficial and successful exchange of cultures, which would have a detrimental impact on our multicultural society. The most important aspect of appreciation is an adequate level of understanding and respect for the other culture and the aspect of it that is being appropriated. Acknowledgement of privilege and the asymmetrical nature of the relationship between certain cultures is also important. I believe we can facilitate a successful and beneficial exchange of cultures through striking the correct balance between reducing the negative consequences of certain forms of cultural appropriation, as outlined, and allowing people to appreciate and access information about other cultures, which is integral to the understanding and incorporation of cultures within a multicultural society.
Shanice Mahil is a second-year Law with French Law student at Wadham College, Oxford, and a member of Oxford Migrant Solidarity, an organisation that provides social visits for detainees in Campsfield Detention Centre.
 Edward Said, Orientalism, Pantheon Books 1978
 Laura Leibowitz, ‘Diesel Burqa Ad: Too Edgy for Comfort?’, Sep 9th 2014, Huffington Post