explainer

Cultural appropriation explainer: How to avoid being offensive.

Italian luxury brand Gucci was forced to remove a $1250 woollen balaclava-style jumper from shelves this week after being accused of ‘blackface’.

The brand “deeply apologised” for the racial insensitivity in a statement to Twitter, writing that it “considers diversity to be a fundamental value to be fully upheld, respected, and at the forefront of every decision we make”.

Gucci is not alone.

Many companies have had to pull items after being accused of racism and cultural appropriation, like Nike’s tattoo leggings and Chanel’s boomerangJamie Oliver was even criticised over rice.

Of course, we’ve also seen celebrities criticised – for their fashion choices, hairstyles and Halloween costumes, among other things.

Kylie Jenner with cornrows, Karlie Kloss dressed as a geisha on the cover of Vogue, Hilary Duff and Jason Walsh’s ‘sexy pilgrim’ and Native American Halloween costume. The list goes on.

While comments on stories about these incidents invariably include at least one ‘political correctness gone mad’ argument, cultural appropriation is a vital conversation to be having. Especially as blackface incidents still make the news regularly in Australia and worldwide. Gucci is just the latest example.

To get a full understanding of what cultural appropriation is, why it’s offensive and how to respect and admire a culture without misappropriating it, we spoke with Dr Elizabeth Coleman from Monash University.

What is the definition of cultural appropriation?

The most general interpretation of cultural appropriation might be simply ‘taking’ from ‘another culture’.

“It may be used to describe the taking ideas, methods, symbols, objects, musical or artistic forms. We do this all the time, for instance, whenever we try a new cooking style,” Dr Coleman explains. “But generally, it is used as a form of condemnation.”

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The Oxford English Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the practices, customs, or aesthetics of one social or ethnic group by members of another (typically dominant) community or society”.

Dr Coleman says this definition includes the idea that the taking or use of something from a culture is a misappropriation.

“In this sense, it is often used to describe a dominant group adopting or taking the culture of a colonised people or minority group.

“Another use might be to suggest that the adoption does not appropriately respect the original cultural context – where its adoption might be acceptable if it were to be respectful, and to follow appropriate protocols,” she says.

Dr Coleman explains there are vast differences between the context in which cultural appropriation is used; for example, ‘blackface’ in musical theatre that mocked people of African descent is very different to the kinds of uses where we might say that the adoption is a form of sincere admiration.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the term itself dates back to as early as 1945, with the adoption of Orientalism. Another early use (1968) concerned the exploitation of African artistic forms by artists of European ancestry, Dr Coleman says.

Why is cultural appropriation offensive?

“An artist of European ancestry is more likely to be able to make a financial return from a song or melody than a person of African descent,” Dr Coleman says.

“But it can also be offensive because it involves theft. Often, a person of European descent will take something because they like it, and because according to Western copyright law, anything that is tradition can be be used by anyone. However, symbols, objects or music may be owned or managed differently in other cultures. For instance, a song or totem may belong to a lineage in First Nations peoples.

“Similarly, in Australian Aboriginal cultures, symbols are handed down according to legal rights from generation to generation. These are not collectively owned, but owned by very specific people within a clan or tribe.”

This form of appropriation is offensive as it disregards the laws and customs of indigenous people.

Appropriation may also be ‘blasphemous’ or sacrilegious, she says, “such as when the image of a god or ancestor is taken and displayed or used inappropriately”.

“This offence is not necessarily different from other forms of religious offence, such as the way some Christians feel about depictions of Christ or the Virgin Mary in popular culture.”

For example, a Byron Bay swimsuit designer apologised and pulled the sale of a bikini depicting Hindu goddess Lakshmi in 2011.

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Can a typically dominant culture also be appropriated?

Dr Coleman thinks so, but in this instance it is less likely to be considered a misappropriation, in part because European culture has different norms associated with artistic borrowing.

She gives the example of the Wahgi people of Papua New Guinea, who appropriated images of DC comic book character Phantom for use on their shields.

The character of Phantom protects his home and is nicknamed “The Man Who Cannot Die”.

“When the Wahgi people of Papua New Guinea appropriated images of the Phantom from comics for use on their shields, they did so because the character was meaningful to them. This appropriation is unlikely to damage financial returns of the Phantom from copyright.”

What are examples of cultural appropriation?

What is appropriated generally depends on what is fashionable, or collectable.

Common examples of cultural appropriation in fashion include lots of common music festival fashion accessories, including non-Native Americans wearing a war bonnet and a non-Hindu or South-Asian woman wearing a bindi. White people adopting black hairstyles such as afros or cornrows is another example that attracts fierce debate.

There’s also been much discourse around cultural appropriation in music. For example, Iggy Azalea (a white Australian woman) has been accused of appropriation for her ‘blaccent’, meaning intentionally mimicking the language and dialect of African American vernacular.d just recently Ariana Grande was accused of wearing African American culture as a costume in her single 7 Rings.

Closer to home, Dr Coleman says it’s important to remember that the first violence between Aboriginal people and colonists in Australia concerned retribution for sailors taking spears in order to sell them to museums and collectors, as recorded in the diary of Watkin Tench.

“There was very little appropriation of Aboriginal art until Margaret Preston suggested that non-Aboriginal Australian artists would never be truly Australian until they adopted Aboriginal styles.

“Appropriation in Australia really took off in the 1970s and 1980s with the growth of the Aboriginal arts movement in Papunya and the first major exhibitions of Aboriginal art at the Gallery of New South Wales and National Gallery of Australia.”

How can we appreciate a culture without appropriating it?

Dr Coleman says the admiration of a culture’s art, customs, etc. can inadvertently lead someone to misappropriation, so it’s important to keep that in mind.

“I think that the central issue of importance is to find out as much as possible about the cultural form before using it, and don’t assume that your admiration and appropriation is a form of respect.

“Make inquiries about who owns something, and ask the elders of the group who created it. Read about how it might be used.”

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