Cultural appropriation isn’t just stupid – it’s dangerous

Now hear me out

People have been called out for appropriating all sorts of things over the past few years – dreadlocks, henna, even hoop earrings – and let’s not beat about the bush: it’s white people who have been called out. Why is that? Because society is founded on the back of white supremacy, hence the systemic, structural, inherent racism found in our communities today: white people wearing the hairstyles once sported by slaves is, therefore, distasteful.

Don’t we want that to change? Societies built with slavery and oppression are still showing signs of racism today, but our awareness of that and our understanding of why that is the case is surely the first step towards real change. It won’t always be this way – or so I hope – and the simple fact that articles like this are allowed to be published is a huge step forward. Discussing race and equality is undoubtedly a huge shift from times when questions of white superiority were taken as fact and any suggestion otherwise was out of the question.

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Cultural appropriation, therefore, seems a tad anachronistic to me – in an increasingly multicultural, internationally-geared world, shouldn’t the spread and influence of culture be something to celebrate? It just seems so obvious: shouldn’t we be focusing on coming together, rather than trying to be divisive?

I understand that white cultures adopting aspects of PoC cultures is problematic because it’s being done from a position of power: whilst, for instance, Afro hair on a black person is sometimes seen as ‘ghetto’ or ‘untidy’, a white person’s imitation is more likely to be seen as ‘fashionable’ or ‘cool’. But that doesn’t mean white people can’t do it – it just means this is a conversation that needs to be had. Forbidding white cultures to dabble in other cultures isn’t progressive: it’s regressive. Let people wear what they want and it can be used as a vehicle to open up discussion and debate about why certain aspects of PoC culture on the white body can be problematic.

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A lot of the arguments for cultural appropriation also beg the question: so what? Mehndi is traditionally applied during Hindu weddings – so what? I struggle to see why that means it can’t be used at other times. Even those using it for traditional purposes struggle to see why, it seems: my cousin stuffed henna cones into my suitcase for me to take back to England to use for fun after her own Hindu wedding. Cultural appropriation is definitely a problem which has been created by the west – I doubt any of my Mauritian relatives would know what cultural appropriation is, or even grasp the concept.

I also find it incredibly presumptuous. I’ve worn a bindi to go out before, but no one has ever dared tell me to take it off, simply because I look Indian or Hindu. I am neither of those things. How on earth are we meant to police something like that when you can’t instantly check everyone’s heritage? (For the record, the bindi is symbolic of the third eye – which again begs the question, so what? Why can’t I then wear one?).

Cultural appropriation can get a bit stupid then – but it’s also dangerous. Building walls around cultures and segregating them all off seems dangerously close to apartheid, which was purported as necessary due to a potential ‘loss of personality’ for racial identities with too much integration in South Africa. Coming from a mixed heritage myself – part of that mix being South African – I’m all for celebrating cultural diversity. Putting people into little ‘cultural’ boxes just doesn’t work in the 21st century. Ethnic ‘purity’ doesn’t exist.

People need to have these conversations. It’s distasteful for a white American to wear a Native American headdress – but we need to have conversations about why as opposed to howling people down before they realise what they’ve done wrong.

And for the record, I’m not a Hindu. But I’ll continue to wear the bindis and henna my cousins give me because people have bigger things to worry about than a 19 year old girl with a gem on her head.