How to Identify and Resist Cultural Appropriation

April 24, 2015 | By Betty Le
woman with Indigenous headdress

Image courtesy of Chris Beckett (CC). 

It’s music festival season! When the weather starts getting nice, music festivals like California’s Coachella and Lightning in a Bottle attract hundreds of people from around the world of all ages.

If you’ve ever attended a similar event or seen the photos taken at them, you may notice a trend amongst individuals that attend. Emulating the spirit of Woodstock and the hippie movement, music festival attendees often use their clothing choices to stand out—in some cases, incorporating styles that come from other cultures in order to appear original and unique, without considering the culture and people these items originally come from.

This is a form of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is about taking something with profound cultural significance and using it outside of the proper context, which is disrespectful to its historical past and traditions.

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Cultural Appropriation’s Roots

Cultural appropriation is a result of colonization, where settler culture required people from other cultures to assimilate into colonial life. Cultural appropriation tends to impact cultures that have already suffered tremendous loss at the hands of colonization, such as Indigenous cultures.

Regardless of one’s intention, cultural appropriation can occur, and it is up to the individual to think about how one’s actions or clothing choices may offend others in order to ignore it. There is no concrete list of items that are or are not considered cultural appropriation, which is why being mindful and critically thinking about what is and isn’t appropriate is essential.

Example of Cultural Appropriation: Appropriating the Headdress

One common accessory at musical festivals that has been cited as cultural appropriation by a number of articles and media outlets is the headdress.

The headdress used as an accessory at an event like a music festival is considered cultural appropriation for two main reasons. First, headdresses are traditionally worn, if at all, as a sign of leadership or spiritual significance usually amongst elders in many Indigenous tribes. Wearing this accessory for an event like a music festival is disrespectful of those traditions and undermines the value that the traditional headdress represents. Second, it perpetuates stereotypes about Indigenous tribes, as not all Indigenous cultures even wear headdresses.

Wearing a headdress as an accessory crosses the line between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation due to the lack of respect about the traditions and significances associated with the item.

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How to Identify Cultural Appropriation

As there is a thin line between cultural embracement and cultural appropriation, it is necessary for individuals to be mindful of other cultures and their possible reactions to what they may wear or say.

A series of steps you may follow if you wish to be more mindful about cultural appropriation:

  1. Try to identify parts of your outfit or vocabulary that may be borrowed from other cultures and envision how a person of that culture may react to the way you are wearing or saying it.
  2. Think about whether the piece of clothing or phrase in question is being used respectfully and is aligning with the traditions of its cultural origins.
  3. Can what you are wearing or saying have the potential to perpetuate stereotypes that exist about a certain culture?

By following these steps, we are better fit to identify cultural appropriation and are being sensitive to and respectful of all cultures.

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