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Pop culture puts cultural appropriation in the spotlight

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APRIL 28, 2014

The month of April has been one of cultural disrespect in the music world. From celebrities wearing bindis at the Coachella music festival and the MTV movie awards to the use of women of color as accessories in Miley Cyrus’ ongoing Bangerz tour and in Avril Lavigne’s new music video, entertainers have appropriated other cultures to appear unique and exotic. But this is nothing new. Lady Gaga and Rihanna got #BurqaSwag trending last year by sporting the garments to make a fashion statement, Gwen Stefani had that horribly orientalist promotion of her music with her entourage of the Harajuku Girls, and Madonna has been exploiting the bindi since the ’90s.

Thus far, I passively observed as this phenomenon stirred debate — some have criticized these entertainers, while others have defended them for their creative expression and for boldly promoting aspects of other cultures. Until now, I had believed there were bigger things to worry about than pop stars wearing bindis to be fashionable or singing into the asses of black women on stage to hype up their own “YOLO” lifestyle.

But I can’t continue to tolerate this. Cultural appropriation is everywhere, and those in the public spotlight are making it worse. It would be a different story if this borrowing of aspects of non-Western cultures was rooted in respect, consideration and knowledge of the meaning behind culturally significant items.

Cultural appropriation is often rooted in dehumanizing ideas of exoticism and a Western power-and-privilege dynamic. Bell hooks sums up this exoticism perfectly in her novel “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” when she writes: “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.”

I’ve heard people say that this is all trivial, that all cultures adopt aspects of other cultures, and that’s just how they grow. I understand culture is fluid and ever-changing and doesn’t belong to anyone, so the idea of cultural appropriation may seem divisive. If Selena Gomez thinks that bindi is cute, she can wear it to look cute. If Alessandra Ambrosio thinks Native American headdress accentuates her bone structure, why the heck wouldn’t she wear it? And I know Western culture gets adopted by other cultures, too.

But what’s divisive is refusing to acknowledge that appropriation exists. Today, cultural appropriation demonstrates the imbalance of power that still remains between cultures that have been oppressed or colonized in the past and dominant ones, so perceived appropriation of Western culture has different implications than the appropriation of minority cultures. When a Muslim woman wears a burqa, she’s subject to the risk of discrimination or violence for essentially being an outsider, especially during the modern war on terror. Muslim women wearing burqas have been publicly beaten and harassed. Meanwhile, celebrities treat these garments like fashion accessories without even understanding their cultural significance or purpose, and they don’t face any of the negative consequences. Amy LaCount of Bust Magazine wrote about Miley’s appropriation of the stereotypical black “ratchet” culture, asserting that Miley could “twerk and pretend to be ratchet” for the brief time that she’s onscreen, but she can stop the act whenever she wants, while others who can’t do the same must deal with the stereotypes and discrimination every day. Minh-Ha Pham, a professor at Cornell University, says white celebrities who appropriate black cultural practices benefit from an “ahistorical experience” without “bearing the costs of racial difference.”

Cultural appropriation, although blatantly wrong, is a very complex issue with no simple solution. It’s tricky because, once you acknowledge it exists, you may question yourself every time you encounter an aspect of another culture. Is it appropriation if I want dreadlocks? What about if I do yoga? Things like dreadlocks and yoga have been recolored as part of Western culture to the point where it’s really hard to say. But the point is to simply educate ourselves about other cultures, think critically about such issues and make empathetic, informed choices when it comes to cultural exchanges. It’s hard to figure out what’s offensive or not, so just listen to those who are part of the appropriated cultures. Personally, if Katy Perry came out wearing a hanbok — the traditional Korean dress, not too different from the cheongsam she actually performed in at the American Music Awards — I wouldn’t be that offended, but plenty of other people would be. We have a responsibility to listen to people of other cultures and to try to understand the ways in which their cultures have been appropriated or exploited.

During the first weekend of Coachella,a tweet from Denny’s official Twitter account read, “The best Coachella look is french toast remnants all over yr face while not appropriating any other cultures.” And, honestly, Denny’s got it right. While celebrities’ appropriation of other cultures is merely a strategy to appear unique or cool by starting new trends, we have to recognize that it’s wrong. They’re empowering themselves by marginalizing others, and anything is better than that … even a face covered in french toast remnants.

Hailey Yook writes the Monday column on contemporary social issues. Contact her at [email protected].

APRIL 28, 2014