We live in a society where many think it may be trendy or hip to dress in so-called ‘exotic’ attires or change their hairstyle in order to look more like certain groups of people. This kind of behavior has been often reported in the news and has caused outrage among many, especially minorities, since they are often robbed from their cultural identity. Popular cases in the media include the occasion when Kylie Jenner posted a picture on Instagram of her wearing cornrow wig, causing a celebrity feud among her and Amandla Stenberg, and in general outrage about her act of cultural appropriation. But what exactly is cultural appropriation, and why is it that it can be so wrong and insulting?
According to Richard Rogers (2006), cultural appropriation is “the use of culture’s symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies by members of another culture” (p. 474), and it can be beneficial to society in some ways but extremely denigrating towards some groups in other ways. Rogers makes a distinction between what is cultural exchange and what are more negative types of cultural appropriation, such as cultural dominance and cultural exploitation. He describes cultural exchange as a “reciprocal exchange of symbols, artifacts, rituals, genres, and/or technologies between cultures with roughly equal levels of power” (p. 477); cultural exchange is an equal exchange between cultures, with no dominance or exploitation from neither part. This type of cultural exchange can be beneficial for both parties and is a natural part of our human nature. However, cultural dominance is a negative type of cultural appropriation, given that there is a dominant culture that imposes its culture among a subordinate culture (Rogers, 2006), thus replicating some sort of hierarchical dominance among cultures. A similar power-dominance situation happens in the case of cultural exploitation, where the dominant culture takes the culture of the subordinate culture without any type of permission or compensation for it (Rogers, 2006). Thus, while cultural exchange might be a positive type of cultural appropriation, the difference in power between different cultures makes cultural dominance and cultural exploitation a representation of inequality, abuse of power, and an imposing dominance from a particular group to another.
Native Americans are a minority group who has been constantly subject to the cultural exploitation from the dominant white American culture, reducing its culture to a series of artifacts that are nothing more than aesthetically pleasing. A popular Native American artifact that is often appropriated are their traditional headdresses. Not so recently, the subculture of white American hipsters started setting a trend of wearing Native American attire, as a signifier of hipness and coolness, a sensation that is mostly noticeable in music festivals such as Coachella. According to a blog post by Ruth Hopkins (n.d.), Coachella is now filled with white Americans who wear seemingly cheap headdresses as a fashion accessory, completely disregarding the sacred historical element that warbonnets actually have – traditionally worn by respected American Indians. The argument is not that it might or might not be done offensively, but that regardless of the intent, the commodification of such a traditional and sacred artifact is disrespectful to the culture, identity and heritage of Native Americans.
Furthermore, according to Adrienne Keene (2010), the cultural appropriation of headdresses promotes stereotypes, since it reduces the diversity of a culture into a single monolithic culture. Keene argues that wearing headdresses as a fashion statement is as bad as wearing blackface, because it is just as if you were playing Indian, something that just as the history of blackface is a symbol of racial denigration (2010).
The cultural appropriation of headdresses is a symbol of the continuing culture of power from the dominant culture that happened ever since the Native Americans were colonized (Keene, 2010). Given that this is still a minority, whose culture has less social power than the dominant white American, any cultural appropriation taken from them would be seen as Roger’s cultural exploitation (2006), and thus an abuse of power and a symbol of cultural inequality, that should be stopped.
Hopkins, R. (n.d.). WTF Coachella?! You’re a one stop cultural appropriation festival! Last real indians. Retrieved from http://lastrealindians.com/wtf-coachella-youre-a-one-stop-cultural-appropriation-festival-by-ruth-hopkins/.
Keene, A. (2010, April 27). But why can’t I wear a hipster headdress? Native appropriations. Retrieved from http://nativeappropriations.com/2010/04/but-why-cant-i-wear-a-hipster-headdress.html.
Rogers, R.A. (2006). A review and reconceptualization of cultural appropriation. Communication theory, 16, 474-503.