Not your Instagram accessory

My culture isn't the latest trend

23rd November 2017

I say cultural appropriation and immediately the red, flashing words pop up: Coachella! Bindi! Henna! The sirens go off and the cultural appropriation police are on their way. A crime scene of henna designs and bindis all over Instagram, the “must-haves” for any time of year.

East’s “Handblock print panel skirt” is basically a lehenga. (Image: East)

Who wrote this rulebook, because it certainly wasn’t people of colour?

A desperation to be desirable on social media has blurred the lines between what is acceptable and respectable. Is the need to look “pretty” or “cool” more important than an entire cultural history being wiped out for aesthetic purposes?

It’s not just a few uneducated people at festivals and parties. It appears that a damaging trend has emerged in the bubble of rich, white celebrities. Their privileged position giving them a free pass on wearing whatever they please, regardless of cultural significance. They can steal hairstyles from the black community to keep up a stylish persona. They can dress up as a Native American for Halloween because clothes and culture are costumes to play with. White boys can go on holiday to the UAE and wear a thobe because it “looks cool” but would still mock an Arab man who wears one.

We have three types of perpetrators: the active cultural appropriator, the passive person of colour and the frenemy. Take your pick for which one you’d like to be filed under. We have the active: “I don’t care, I can use my privilege to justify my disrespectful actions.” They’re the most well-known and the most prevalent.

We have the passive person of colour: “I’m really glad to see this privileged, white person wearing the same clothes because maybe now I won’t be considered inferior for doing so.”

The frenemy, perhaps the most harmful culprit of them all, is another person of colour who works undercover to slowly eat away at you. They accuse you of being too traditional (which for them is synonymous with not being progressive enough) just because you wore your Maria B shalwar kameez to Morrisons rather than your Primark jeans.

Ignoring our varied experiences means everybody is encouraged to assimilate, rather than integrate.

Kameez… sorry I mean “tunic dress” (Image: WhiteStuff)

The extent of this cultural theft can be seen just from walking through the high street stores. My recent visits to stores such as Zara have been filled with nothing but annoyance. Embroidered garments taunting me and reminding me of growing up and being made to feel embarrassed for wearing shalwar kameez. Now the tunic and trouser combo is being replicated by stores because they finally meet the requirements of being stylish. This is simply another tool to exert power. The history of lehengas and ghararas worn by the nawabs of Lucknow is completely overlooked and they’ve been stereotyped as “too loud and too colourful” for western tastes. Our mehndi only now being considered beautiful. I have to live surrounded by a buzz of the same, old petty justifications that “I just wanted to show off my creativity”, neglecting “through stealing your henna designs”.

Cute trousers – but why are they only funny when I wear them? (Image: Wallis)

This does not actually come as much of a surprise given the high street scandals of stealing designs from artists, and factory workers leaving pleas for help inside garment pockets. Many people have been blown away by the “creative process” and the ability of high street stores to mass produce clothing, making millions of pounds. We only seem to want to talk about the appearance of garments and the profit made.

There is a complete removal of the labour endured by workers in the process. Workers are still forced to endure terrible factory conditions and do not receive recognition for their work. They work for those who pick and choose aspects of their culture on a whim. Fast fashion has contributed to this robotic system, which only seeks to deepen the power asymmetry, by favouring the wealthy.

That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy art and fashion from different cultures – it’s there to be enjoyed. But it’s not there to be claimed, especially by privileged western fashion houses. In order to fully appreciate culture, it’s important to note its historical significance rather than reducing it to a disposable fashion accessory. The privileged groups should be using their platform to support minorities by raising awareness about the injustices they suffer and sharing their art, instead of profiting from their background.

I’m tired of being accused of being too sensitive and being told that I’m escalating the situation. That I’m supposed to be glad to see privileged, white people wearing the clothes that my fellow people of colour have been ridiculed for. I’m supposed to be okay with these cultural aspects suddenly becoming fashionable just because the white saviour says so. I’m supposed to say “thank you for altering these perceptions just to make them more suitable for yourself”.

Unfortunately, people who don’t give cultural appropriation a second glance, only further the perpetual cycle of a toxic power structure. It involves not just the exploitation of culture but that of human labour. Only when the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation is understood, we can move forward and actually encourage diversity, rather than remain rooted in ignorance.

23rd November 2017