One of the long-run debates in fashion is cultural appreciating and cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriate, according to Oxford Dictionaries, is the “unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one person or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” Or simply put, it is when someone is adopting a specific characteristic from a culture that is not his or her own – a hairstyle, a piece of clothing, or even the manner of speaking/behaving.
For my final research paper, I am writing about cultural appropriation: what it is and why it is so offensive. And where does one draw a line between appreciating and appropriating a culture.
It is often acceptable for one individual to take on another aspect of a different culture. However, the problem arises when it comes off as something offensive to the members of that specific culture. Therefore, when it comes to popular opinions on the freedom of expression, where does one draw the line between appreciating and appropriating a certain culture? Earlier this year, a Utah high school senior faced backlash for wearing a traditional Chinese dress to prom.
She thought the dress was beautiful but the others thought it was disrespectful. In her defense, she responded that she meant no disrespect to the Chinese culture and was only simply showing her appreciation to their culture. Hence, it sparked fury on social media, where many people accused her of cultural appropriation. Thus, kicked off a debate over cultural appropriation and whether or not she is going too far wearing a traditional dress of another culture to prom.
This is an example of the long-running debate over the fine line between appreciating and appropriating culture. As an answer to this matter, three editors in Canada lost their jobs for making a defense for cultural appropriation. Basically, what they were saying in defense of cultural appropriation was that you can’t “steal” a culture and that they don’t believe or don’t support the idea that cultural appropriation is a real issue. This caused a social media backlash that ended up forced them to resign. All of this raised a question, what is it about cultural appropriation that is so offensive, to the point where we can’t even discuss, without fear of censure or fear of losing our jobs. Cultural appropriation, like anything else, should at least be something we can discuss, without fear of censure. Even if we think what the Canadian editor who initial wrote in defense of cultural appropriation is wrong. Or if we think that his opinions are misguided and hurtful, it is alarming for us to say that he shouldn’t hold them. It would be a huge mistake to remove all the unpopular idea. Because after all, arguments are also one of the benefits of writing and reading. And if we think that an opinion is provoking hatred or ignorance, it should be criticized instead of being dismissed from the record. Appropriation suggests theft, and when it comes to the case of culture, however, what is called appropriation is not theft but chaotic interaction. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one, and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures. Ideally, a debate about cultural appropriation should at least lead to more accurate knowledge of the history of a garment or a tradition. Yet, far too often, the conversations that we have regarding cultural appropriate don’t even do that. Instead, they ended up reaffirming conceited presumptions of what it means to be righteous. Sometimes, learning more about a case of alleged cultural appropriation may provide the right answer. Other times, studying cultural history can make claims of ownership much more uptight. For instance, where I came from, or more specifically, Vietnam, we have this traditional clothing that we called, “Ao Dai”. And every time a foreigner sees it, they always wanted to try it on because it is a beautiful piece of traditional garment. And back in Vietnam, if the people see a foreigner in our “Ao Dai”, they would be very proud and happy that other people coming from a different cultural think that it is beautiful too. The last thing any one of us would do is criticize them of “cultural appropriating” our tradition. However, I feel like it would be an entirely different story over here if anyone tries to do the same thing. I feel like there would be at least one person who tries to claim that they are of a Vietnamese descendant and they found it offensive to see someone who is not Vietnamese wearing our culture. It makes me realize that “cultural appropriation” might not be what we think it is. More precisely, even when it is true there might be a very fine line between appreciating and appropriating a culture, it is a very nuanced and subjective matter where it depends on how a person perceives and interprets the problem. I feel like as we progress through each generation, more and more people are coming to understand and be more aware of other people’s realities and be more empathetic. That’s what we should practice in all aspects of our lives. Hence, I completely understand that why some people would think that you shouldn’t wear someone’s heritage as a costume. Especially if you don’t even know the meaning behind it. However, that raises another issue. To one of a race, it’s appropriation, while to another, it’s appreciation. Which is sometimes very confusing. And personally, it is true that there is a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. However, if we think about it, to some extent, culture at its core is something that is projected into other cultures. But most importantly that we benefit from globalization which has allowed cultures to mix together and permeate.
In conclusion, to answer the question as to what is cultural appropriation and why it is so offensive: Culture has always been a collective process. As long as one adopts a particular aspect of a culture respectfully, I don’t see what the problem is. It spreads the awareness and understanding of different cultures, as long as we can capture the “human value” behind it. In reality, everyone has adopted some parts of other cultures. That’s how civilization builds, grows, and expands. So, every person and culture has adopted some aspects of a different culture to some degree. Culture is not one thing you wear or eat and “appropriating” it isn’t either. It’s the way of life and how you mentally and spiritually approach life.