Thieves, white knights and feathered headdresses

Clementine Ford writes 

The summer music festival season is upon us once more, and that can mean only one thing. Through amphitheatres and dust bowls, across pavilions and around make shift campsites, there’ll be a sea as far as the eye can see of Native American headdresses, Mexican floral head wreaths and three lone hippies dressed in rags and dancing around a drum. Why? Well, because bright young things need something to decorate their insouciance with, and obnoxiously large totems that bring to mind attempts to enslave and eradicate entire groups of people are the perfect choice. And those feathers are sahh pretty. 

A lot has already been written about cultural appropriation (a very different thing from cultural inspiration, the differences of which are adequately explored here) in the fashion industry. And most of it has been critical of just how little self awareness it takes to pair expensive underwear with a not-even-subtle nod to Navajo ceremonial dress, parade it down runways on the backs of distinctly western women - all of whom possess the privilege of race, beauty and wealth and therefore the ability to remove such an alliance to culture when the show is over.

The trouble with cultural appropriation isn’t that it’s just so damn common (I defy anyone who’s been to Asia, even me, to not have even flirted with the idea of buying a bamboo rice paddy hat “because it will look great hanging on the wall”) - it’s that it’s so contrary. Inherent to the idea of being able to culturally appropriate something is also being able to shuck it off. Considering the ‘victims’ of appropriation are so often cultures that have succumbed to western imperialist oppression AND also patronising exoticisation, the idea of being able to steal their totems to send a message about our own individuality seems almost too ironic. 

On the other hand, those inclined to get uppity about Abercrombie & Fitch models palling around in face paint and feathers can be guilty of a bit of appropriation themselves. Because while there’s no situation in which it’s okay for anyone outside of Native Americans, particularly white people*, to don feathered headdresses because they’ll really pop in Instagram’s lo-fi setting, we also have to be prepared to examine our own reasons for opposing it and how they might also rely on the appropriation of culture.

That is, are we protesting the exploitation of culture in the stark absence of historical awareness, bristling at the insult of privileged westerners treating cultures like interchangeable costumes they can wear to reveal something unique about themselves while failing to understand or even care about the cultural significance of such items? Or are we instead taking on the role of White Knight because we think exploited cultures need defending from modern day colonialists? (By someone who actually looks a little bit like a modern day colonialist but wants everyone to know that they’re really in tune with the needs of ‘ethnic’ groups and probably, if truth be told, feel a lot closer to them in spirit than they do their embarrassingly two dimensional cultural kin.)

 Unfortunately, it is the current privilege of westerners (particularly benevolent ones) to view their own culture as something that doesn’t really exist. It’s bland and superficial; it doesn’t even have a cultural costume! Curse all this social power! WE WANT SOME KICKY FABRIC THAT DEFINES OUR PEOPLE. (We do, and it’s called ‘Tommy Hilfiger’).

Of course, the opposite is true. Western culture - the culture of capitalism - is pretty much the only one that’s given any kind of legitimacy in today’s global village. Everything else is peripheral to this, which is why it’s so easy for fashion designers, trend makers and everyone else trying to aspire to something that positively ‘others’ them from the norm to dip into other cultures as if they were goodie bags we’re entitled to rummage through. The kind of self awareness that can be so easily mistaken with paternalism rears its ugly head when those who wield it unintentionally denigrate the very cultural groups they think they’re protecting. Why, for example, do we feel less confronted by the idea of adopting Irish traditions, even though we’re not Irish? Why has no one taken offence at the global popularity of Australian Ugg boots (other than visually)? Why are we less inclined to view people who go to India and take up in saris and salwar kameez as cultural thieves and more like the people Will Sutcliffe parodied in his brilliant snark fest, Are You Experienced? Is it that we feel certain cultures can be appropriated because we perceive them as more ‘successful’ than the ones we refer to as exotic in exchange? Indeed, is it that we assume appropriation itself relies upon the act of thieving, and secure, dominant cultures don’t need to be protected from the sticky fingers of the Imperial Forces?

It’s the kind of thinking that a few years ago led Radio National’s Philip Adams to publicly lament the infiltration of western pop culture into indigenous communities. Adams was moderating a discussion on indigenous rights and the NT Intervention at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas, when he recalled watching a performance at an indigenous community celebration. Some of the boys took to the stage and, like approximately every other group of teenage boys exposed to American culture over the past 20 years, performed some hip hop they’d written. Adams explained to the panel’s indigenous guests how sad he found it, seeing these boys channel the artificial culture of American modern music instead of their own traditional song and dance. While I gagged, one of the guests very tactfully explained how Aboriginal communities can’t be expected to experience their culture in a vacuum for the benefit of outsiders - they are as entitled to change and evolve as anyone else.

Still, other people’s cultures are not there for you to use as a dress up box. Stop wearing feathered headdresses and face paint. You look like an ignorant twat.

If you already knew that, don’t pat yourself on the back and give yourself a gold star for demonstrating excellence in cultural awareness. And if you feel the urge to congratulate yourself for transcending the White Person’s Experience by attending an event in which people Not Like You entertain you with something a little bit culturally different, don’t. It is not the responsibility of oppressed minorities to alleviate your white person’s guilt by playing the part of the Happy Savage, just so you’ll have a great story to tell your similarly wealthy-but-culturally-altruistic friends later on when you invite them round to show them the photos from last month’s trip to Lagos. You know, the ones of the gorgeous black children playing football with a stick that really moved you with their optimism and humility

*And I’m sorry, there’s just no compromise on that because by and large we have never and will never experience what it’s like to have a dominant invading force first steal our land, progressively try to annihilate our culture, banish us to society’s fringes and then blame us for the economic and social consequences of our own oppression, so seriously, if you were about to call me a reverse-racist you might want to stop and think for a moment about how the very fact you said reverse-racist means you acknowledge racism is something that never happens to white people, because being charged more for trinkets in Bali is not the same thing.

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2 comments so far..

  • Berliner's avatar
    Date and time
    Tuesday 11 Dec 2012 - 11:56 AM
    I don't get this whole cultural appropriation thing and am worried about making a foolish fashion faux pas. Please help me with the many questions your article brings up.

    It seems it's not ok to wear a feather headdress unless you are native American, but what about moccasins? Everyone all around the world has those. Should I renounce moccasin wearing? Is it disrespectful? What about eating corn - is that cultural appropriation too? Is it respectful if I refer to it as "maize". I mean that would make it like quinoa then, and if that's not a fashionable ingredient I don't know what is! Is eating quinoa cultural appropriation or just a passing fad or is it just a healthy choice? So hard to know!

    What about my Chinese friend who loves dressing in Korean fashions and listening to K-Pop and only wanting to go to Korean hairdressers because she thinks Korean style is the best thing in the world - is she appropriating? What about all those Japanese men's fashion brands who sell the tailored English style suiting and bowler hats - is that cultural appropriation too? What about Chanel, that's about as French as you can get, are non French people allowed to wear that? Especially those stripy fisherman's tops. And even Chanel's latest collection is based on Mary Queen of Scots! That would include tartan and nothing could be more Scottish! Are we allowed to wear tartan or is that disrespectful? Argyle knits? Ok for the non Argylians? Drizabones - do we Australians need to feel our culture is being approriated if we see, say, an English person wearing one?

    Don't get me started on Levi's jeans either, everyone around the world wears those and they aren't all poor hungry dirty gold miners weilding pickaxes for a living. Should Levi's only be worn by miners? Must the miners be from San Francisco? Is anyone else choosing the tradtional garb of downtrodden itenerant workers making a mockery of those of a lower socio-economic class for the sake of a fashion choice . . .

    I am now worried too about wearing my white muslin shirts from India, I love a Nehru collar but I don't want to be seen as imperialist. And my silver jewellery I bought from the Inuit community in Canada? As I look through my wardrobe I see so much bought from or inspired by other cultures - I don't know what to wear. Please help me!
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  • Hecatonchireslm's avatar
    Date and time
    Tuesday 11 Dec 2012 - 2:56 PM
    I think the problem arises when you buy your culturally embaggaged wear from a non-authentic source. So its ok to buy your large feathered headress from the roadside stall at a reservation on a once in a lifetime roadtrip across america, as long as you plan to never wear it and only display it tastefully in your home. However, buying the same headdress from ebay for 1/4 the price, free delivery (is slow delivery) from a guy called hwen lei somewhere in China lessens the cultural exchange and makes you a poser (poseur)
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