In 2019, social media users accused the Barbadian singer, Rihanna, of cultural appropriation when she appeared on the cover of Harper's Bazaar China wearing what looked like Chinese-inspired makeup and dress. Was this cultural appropriation? Or was it cultural appreciation?
While many people jumped to accuse Rihanna of appropriating Chinese culture, dissenting voices pointed out that the team of artists who worked on the cover and the magazine's target audience were both Chinese. So, it made sense that the artists and producers projected their cultural lens on Rihanna.
What is cultural appropriation?
Dictionary.com defines cultural appropriation as "the act of adopting elements of an outsider, often minority culture, including knowledge, practices, and symbols, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context."
Appropriation can be very damaging to minority groups since it dehumanizes people of specific cultural backgrounds. For some, it can be difficult to understand what appropriation looks like if they're new to the concept, so let's look at a few examples to illustrate how cultural appropriation manifests in popular culture.
Examples of cultural appropriation.
To have a better understanding of what cultural appropriation looks like, let's examine at a few typical examples often encountered in American media:
- Blackface: the representation of a black person by non-black actors in television, theater and movies as a caricature.
- Native American/Indian war bonnet used by non-Native Americans as an accessory, predominantly in music festivals like Coachella.
- Fashion brand Comme de Garçons' use of blond, cornrow-braided wigs on "mostly white" models for a catwalk show, a hairstyle traditionally associated with many black cultures.
- Pop stars and fashion brands wearing the "Chola costume" and Latin culture inappropriately.
- African-American music styles being adopted by other communities without giving proper credit.
- Sports teams appropriating images of Native-American stereotypes as mascots.
How can you demonstrate cultural appreciation without appropriating it?
When a foreigner travels to Japan to learn the art of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, she is partaking in cultural appreciation. That is, she's actively learning and understanding the cultural or religious importance of particular manners, dresses, symbols and rituals of a specific community and recognizing the richness and character in these culturally significant expressions should be done in a respectful and contemplative way.
A person who goes through the process of studying another culture learns to understand the nuances in the elements usually stereotyped in the mainstream. Exploring other cultures also brings context to the features of that culture one may encounter in media.
Here, we circle back to the beginning of this article to re-examine Rihanna's appearance on Harper's Baazar China.
The artistic direction and vision of this photoshoot were guided by Chinese artists and editors who understand they are speaking to an audience expecting a Chinese aesthetic from the publication. Who better than a Chinese person to understand Chinese fashion and taste?
There is nothing "funny" about the pictures in the sense that one would be hard-pressed to find them mocking of Chinese fashion. Harper's Baazar China asked Rihanna, a foreigner, to be on its cover. That is quite different from Rihanna taking it upon herself to dress in a "Chinese costume" for Halloween.
How can you demonstrate cultural appreciation without appropriating it?
At times, people don't know they are appropriating because they are unaware they're contributing to spreading negative associations. Ignorance is the culprit here, and the easiest way to prevent your homage to another culture from turning into a cartoon is to educate yourself.
If you can, travel to other countries.
Often, we are exposed to other cultures through the media rather than by meeting members of that culture. Stereotypes and false representations of ideas, religious believes, dress manner, symbolism and hairstyles give a quasi-comical characterization of people from a specific community. Traveling to places where these cultures are dominant can help humanize the members of that culture. Humanization, in turn, should shatter any stereotypes and ill-conceived ideas about a group of people. Also, immersion in another culture can give the traveler a better-rounded understanding of how different aspects relate to each other within that culture.
Learn to identify stereotypes.
You may encounter media representations of cultures you may not be familiar with or have never seen in the past. Or you might start realizing that some of the images you're used to seeing in the media you've just taken at face value and have never questioned. Do all Native Americans wear headdresses? The answer is obviously no. But why is it that, usually, Native- American depictions are of a male Indian wearing a war bonnet? Maybe the old stereotype of the Indian chief prominent in children cartoons has something to do with it. Do all Mexican males wear sombreros? If you see a representation of a Mexican man wearing a sombrero, do you know if the image is accurate according to cultural context?
Study other cultures.
If you find yourself realizing that you're not sure if what you are witnessing is a stereotype, a good strategy is to start your research by asking, "Why is this person wearing such garment?" for example. Many organizations are representing the voices of different marginalized communities (often the victims of cultural appropriation) who offer education about the costumes and lifestyles of these groups of people. Take these organizations as an open invitation to explore the cultures they represent more in-depth. Arming yourself with knowledge not only makes you more intellectually powerful, but it also prevents you from unknowingly spreading these stereotypes further.
Giving credit is especially important for entrepreneurs who find inspiration in other cultures for products they create for commercialization. From the world of fashion to dietary supplements, creators travel to other parts of the world and encounter different people. These people may use a particular herb or a specific kind of fabric, pattern, and so on, and a visitor may feel inspired by what she learns from them. There have been many cases of entrepreneurs using this newly acquired knowledge to develop a product. This same entrepreneur also neglects to give credit or financial compensation to the marginalized people who taught her about these techniques and methods once the product is marketed to the masses. The fashion industry is especially guilty of this.
Honor the source. Show respect.
Artistic inspiration is an integral part of the creative process, and it's a good thing that creators find inspiration in the lives of other people because this can bring awareness to the collective about certain marginalized groups. However, the artist must be careful of being appropriate and respectful when presenting her work if it includes a borrowed element from another culture. One of the biggest red flags pointing to cultural appropriation is how a cultural symbol is presented by the person using it. A person can be guilty of appropriation even if she understands the significance of the symbols and customs of the culture that inspires her. She may also like that culture very much. But if she presents the culture in a manner that perpetuates stereotypes or that could be construed as mockery, it's still appropriation.
While differentiating between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation can get tricky, the two concepts can be identified by how one represents these cultural elements. Using aspects of a minority culture in a mocking, careless and disrespectful way or "just for fun" perpetuates stereotypes; this is cultural appropriation. However, when you use these same cultural elements in a way that uplifts and benefits the culture it comes from, and you do so respectfully, you are participating in cultural appreciation.