As a minority living in Canada, I have some insight into what it is like to be marginalized in society. I am not an expert on the topic nor am I the best example of it, but I can say I have some understanding of it.
That being said, I’m also a parent and in recent years, one of the most stylish design ideas for children has been the teepee. They are undeniably trendy right now.
The only problem is that some First Nations are seeing them as an example of cultural appropriation and aren’t happy with it.
Which leads me to ask, is it cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation? And I’m not just talking teepees. I’m talking about bindis, origami, kimonos, henna, and all the other cultural items that have become popular in the mainstream over the years.
In a country that is multicultural and open to all cultures, is it not expected (and even, encouraged) that our children be exposed to ideas from different backgrounds?
I think some of the difference comes down to whether you, as the consumer, are willing to understand the difference between appropriation and appreciation. Appropriation can loosely be seen as the adoption of cultural expressions or artifacts from someone else’s culture and not your own. I think where this goes wrong is when you strip it of all its cultural meaning and simply do so because you “want to”. Or even worse, you’re just a big corporation looking to make a quick buck. Think Victoria’s Secret and their Native American headdress fiasco.
You cannot steal bits and pieces of someone’s culture just because you want to. It doesn’t quite work that way. You have to be cognizant of the culture and the meaning of the item before you blindly appropriate it and along the way, potentially offend an entire group of people.
Cultural appreciation is when you’ve taken the time to be knowledgeable about a culture and are respectful of the meaning behind what you are buying. As an outsider to the culture, you have a great responsibility to try to accurately understand that which you are trying to represent. That is where the difference lies.
I think next time you’re ready to buy that hot ticket item, answer these five questions before you make the big purchase:
Is it sacred and off limits? You know those fun Native American headdresses that Victoria’s Secret paired perfectly with their sexy lingerie? Turns out it wasn’t so perfect. If something is religious, or sacred, or holds special meaning in a culture, the odds are that you probably shouldn’t be sporting it for fun.
Is it negatively associated with the culture? There’s a little NFL team called the Washington Redskins. The problem is that for Native Americans, the term comes from a time when Caucasians were paid to kill Natives and their ‘red skin’ was used as proof of the ‘Indian kill.’ Not so cool. Just do your research and make sure you know what you’re buying into.
Is the purchase of this going towards the culture it comes from? I can see why those teepees hold so much appeal for children. They’re sort of like an indoor fort and hiding place all in one, which is a win-win for kids. The thing is, it’ll be better to buy it directly from the indigenous artists whose culture it originates from (thank you Etsy!) rather than Restoration Hardware. One understands the beauty and meaning behind what they’re selling while the other is hoping to just cash in on the latest trend.
Does it perpetuate a racist stereotype? A few years ago Katy Perry performed a song dressed as a geisha. While she sang “Unconditionally”, she amped up her performance dressed in the image of a submissive and docile sexual object. She basically used her stage to perpetuate a negative and all too common stereotype of Asian women. FYI, that’s something that you want to avoid doing.
Does it even make cultural sense? Next time you’re at a big, fat Indian wedding, go ahead and dress up in a sari with a bindi to boot. I guarantee everyone will fawn over you. At a music festival with Miley Cyrus and Kylie Kardashian? Maybe that bindi doesn’t really make all that much sense there. It’s not rocket science.
As I've mentioned already, I'm not an expert on this topic but I think that if you can answer these five questions, you'll be much closer to cultural appreciation than cultural appropriation. I understand that it's a fine line to walk but I think it warrants that little bit of extra thought.
I don’t see anything wrong with appreciating and borrowing from another culture. I love sushi and Mexican food as much as the next person but don’t come at me with your mom’s recipe for the world’s best butter chicken if she’s never even stepped foot in an Indian grocery store. Because there’s a wrong way and a right way of doing things. And that’s the wrong way.