When Is It Cultural Appropriation?

This year there have been some curious public reactions to a girl’s prom dress and Zac Ephron’s new hairstyle. In May, Keziah Daum wore a Chinese-style dress to her prom. After posting pictures of her prom night on social media, one Twitter user responded with “MY culture is not your prom dress.” That response was retweeted approximately 42,000 times. Some of the Twitter responses from those who described themselves as Asian-American pounced on Ms. Daum’s dress, which was a form-fitting red cheongsam (also known as a qipao) with black and gold ornamental designs, as an example of cultural appropriation. To them, by wearing that dress she was disrespecting Chinese culture. Responses from other Asian-Americans suggested this was silly. People in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan saw her choice of this traditional high-necked dress as a victory for Chinese culture, while a Hong Kong-based cultural commentator said in a telephone interview that “it’s ridiculous to criticize this as cultural appropriation. From the perspective of a Chinese person, if a foreign woman wears a qipao and thinks she looks pretty, then why shouldn’t she wear it?” The incident left some Chinese Americans wondering about Halloween and Christmas and whether by celebrating those holidays, they, too, were engaging in cultural appropriation.

Then, in July, a headline in People magazine’s Style section read: “Zac Ephron Shows Off New Dreadlocks on Instagram, Commenters Accuse Him of Cultural Appropriation.” His Instagram included a photo of his new “look” with the caption, “Just for fun.” Responses that followed included: “Gurl, you know better. It cultural appropriation; that said, I still love you.” Others wrote: “oh no zac pls do not disrespect other ppl a culture ok great love u,” or “Damn if he would’ve gotten dreads and appreciated the culture behind it, it would’ve been okay, but I don’t even think he knows the culture behind it, plus the caption; ‘just for fun’, so culture is something to do for fun now?” Those in defense of Zac Ephron’s hairstyle choice argued with comments like, “Surely saying that someone can’t have a certain hairstyle because they aren’t a specific race surely comes under the definition of racism,” while a Nigerian woman wrote, “this cultural appropriation thing is getting out of hand.” Those comments accusing Zac Ephron of cultural appropriation suggest there are people who see dreadlocks, like the prom dress as something that needs to be culturally understood and carefully contextualized before it can be “borrowed.”

This makes me wonder where the distinction is between cultural appropriation and cultural diffusion. When the definitions become so blurred that the distinction is no longer apparent, we are doing a disservice to the role of language in defining and describing specific things. Over-using or hyping cultural appropriation suggests that every aspect of a culture’s history has been generated in isolation and what is perceived as a critical aspect of a culture, hence subject to theft or misuse, might not even be so. A good example of that occurred with the Chinese prom dress. The qipao was introduced by the minority Manchu to the majority Han Chinese and has evolved extensively since the 17th century, suggesting that, depending on how readily you see cultural borrowing as oppressive or as a hegemonic tool, either the style was appropriated from the Manchu or diffused through contact. In this instance, in support of the language of cultural diffusion over that of appropriation, a Beijing-based writer and fashion blogger believes that “to the Chinese, the dress is not sacred and it’s not that meaningful.” With that, where does that leave us as anthropologists assigned the task of interpreting and, at times, defending culture? Are we somewhat complicit in encouraging such a crisis in identity that accusations of cultural appropriation have truly “gotten out of hand” or is it reasonable to see diffusion and appropriation as flip sides of the same coin?

Barbara Jones, PhD teaches anthropology at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. Her research focus addresses issues of ecotourism and notions of wilderness.

Cite as: Jones, Barbara. 2018. “When is it Cultural Appropriation?” Anthropology News website, August 17, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.942

Comments

I think you should add the issue of power to your question about appropriation. When rich, powerful people or corporations profit from the fashions or foodstuffs of the poor, I perceive injustice. On the other hand, if poor people choose to wear Timberlands, I have no problem – except that some rich powerful people are again making a profit. My colleague Eduardo Brondizio wrote a great book on Acai fruit in Brazil. It was a staple food for poor people all through Amazonia, but when it became a global fashion superfood, it was often too expensive for local people to consume, even though their own exoticism was part of the appeal of the fruit. When Anglo folks make money by selling the jewelry they make as “Indian,” that’s appropriation. When poor people weave Gucci logos into their baskets, is that also appropriation, or something different?

This is a terribly blind take, hindered by the author’s failure to account for the impacts that positionality and power have in instances of cultural appropriation. This failure to be reflexive about positionality is illustrated here, and demonstrates why more anthropologists need to constantly be questioning themselves and their own privileges. I recommend “Anthropology as White Public Space” by Brodkin et al, 2011. I’ve found that stumblings like these often stem from anthropologists’ own inability to reckon with their capacity to act in racist or culturally insensitive ways.

I lecture on this in late October as students are deciding on Halloween costumes. I show images such as the Sexy Anne Frank costume, We’re a Culture Not a Costume campaign posters, Blackface around the world, examples of misogyny, and objectification. We discuss humor, power, and standpoint, and I try to give them a guideline that considers oppression and relative power when choosing a Halloween costume:

Q) Do you have more power than what you are representing?

Yes = probably not OK

No = probably OK

N/A = probably OK

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