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Cultural Appropriation as a Form of Cultural Theft
(source: thenational.ae)

Queendom is a television show that has recently been gaining a lot of attention from the public. In the midst of all its good reviews, however, (G)I-DLE, a K-pop girl group that star as contestants of the show, has stirred up quite some controversy. The group decided “ethnic hip” to be the concept of one of their stages and were accused of cultural appropriation by international fans. So, what exactly is cultural appropriation, and why is it so problematic? The Sungkyun Times (SKT) will explore the depths of this concept through this article.

What Is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation, in essence, is the act of unrightfully adopting aspects of a foreign culture that have nothing to do with one’s own. Culture, in this context, envelops everything that defines a certain group of people, from elements such as language and cuisine to shared norms that include values, principles, and a ubiquitous way of living. This phenomenon is problematic mainly because individuals take items and symbols from a particular ethnic group and use them outside the appropriate cultural context, failing to understand that these items hold great importance in terms of where they originate from. This could lead to unnecessary stereotypes and act as a gateway to racism, which could result in disastrous cultural conflict and tension between different ethnic groups. Cultural appropriation becomes especially controversial when a dominant culture takes from a disadvantaged minority culture as this could stimulate and reignite suppressed feelings of cultural oppression. An example would be the utilization of a Native American war bonnet by a modern North American citizen. These headdresses are regarded by Native Americans as a symbol of great respect worn by tribal leaders, but this symbolism is often overlooked as individuals that view the headgear interpret its flamboyancy as an exotic accessory. All formal definitions aside, however, the most important thing that defines cultural appropriation is how the members of a particular group perceive members of other communities using something that is rightfully theirs.

Native American War Bonnet (aoxoa.com)

Cultural Appropriation in the Fashion Industry

Cultural Appropriation on the Runway (vogue.co.kr)

Nobody from any professional field is ever completely free from the possibility of culturally appropriating as culture is a concept that consists of many different layers. Food, music, and art are just a few examples of all the things that can be appropriated and utilized incorrectly. The fashion industry stands out, however, as a field where cultural appropriation is commonly witnessed.

The Distortion of Important Symbols

Rapper Lil Pump Wearing Dreadlocks (vulture.com)

One main negative consequence of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry is the fact that regardless of how well some pieces are received by the public, these items may be distorting the sacred meanings of symbols from another culture. The vast utilization of dreadlocks is an example that is very representative of this consequence. In today’s society, while many individuals view the hairstyle as a very cool and hip way to make a fashion statement, dreadlocks still remain a very significant representation of the Jamaican populationspecifically, those that follow Rastafarianism, a religious and social movement that has its roots in Jamaica. Rastafarians are seen growing their hair out into dreadlocks because this plays a very significant role in their religion, and the style has grown to become a trademark of their identity as a religious group. It is a symbol with which they choose to express their religious beliefs and is a special something that individuals from an identical walk of life can relate to. Unfortunately, due to the sheer number of nonRastafarians that have decided to sport the hairstyle, dreadlocks are widely known to the youth of today as the “hippie hairstyle” or a hairstyle worn by reggae artists and rappers. It is the act of taking something of such importance from another culture for the simple reason that it may look cool and aesthetic to the eye that makes cultural appropriation wrong

A Backhanded Compliment

Maui Halloween Costume (variety.com)

Sometimes, an act viewed by one culture as simply dressing up may mean something very different to another. While an individual may believe they are paying tribute to a particular ethnicity as a proper form of representation, this action may be regarded as offensive by members of the culture being represented. Annually, children dress up as their favorite cartoon characters to go trick-or-treating during Halloween, and as the years pass by, companies create and produce costumes that are much more creative and realistic. One particular costume inspired by the character Maui from Disney’s film Moana, however, was heavily criticized by the public. The costume included a brown, long-sleeved shirt adorned with Polynesian tattoos to resemble the appearance of Maui, and consumers found the color of the shirt to be quite offensive because the costume utilized Maui’s tan skin as an accessory for the costume, which is a perfect example of cultural appropriation. The Maui costume was heavily criticized as the public viewed it to be on the same offensive spectrum as blackface. Blackface is a type of theatrical make-up that was used widely during the 19th century that requires non-black performers to cover their skin with dark paint to delineate the caricature of a black person, and this was mainly used by comedy actors to demean and dehumanize African Americans in minstrel shows. Though minstrel shows are no longer considered an appropriate form of entertainment today, its negative effects have contributed to the argument that physical attributes should not be replicated as it could be interpreted as a backhanded compliment. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to dress like one’s role model or favorite fictional character, this can be viewed as problematic and controversial when physical attributes such as a deeper skin tone is used as nothing more than an accessory.

The Instilment of Cultural Respect

Encouraging Cultural Awareness

Though designers must do their all to try and avoid cultural appropriation when designing pieces, a world and society in which all cultural exchanges are abolished is improbable as well as highly unideal. Instead, the fashion industry as a whole should place its focus on researching about other cultures and looking for ways to appreciate the diversity in the world. Fashion designers need to recognize the importance of being aware about the different cultures that coexist in this world and research on a particular item before randomly integrating things into their own pieces and labelling them theirs. Through ample research, designers and fashion companies would be able to correctly identify themes and objects that should not be used for the sake of making an item look good, and they may learn different methods to apply these cultural elements into their work without appropriating. An ideal scenario may look like this: a fashion designer inspired to create clothing reflecting Indonesia’s culture personally travelling to Indonesia, experiencing different aspects of the culture, and hiring models that are ethnically Indonesian to get a clearer grasp on what can or otherwise should not be done. In this way, the disrespect and ignorance from cultural appropriation would be subtracted, giving birth to new pieces that can truly represent a nation and lead the world to become a place of mutual respect and rational communication.

Being Rational Consumers

World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development (thenationonlineng.net)

The most crucial factor in avoiding cultural appropriation, in the end, is the collective mindset of consumers. Although producers are often the ones held responsible for this phenomenon, consumers must also stay interested in these cultural issues and keep themselves educated. Intercultural competence refers to one’s capability of understanding and recognizing variances between different cultures, and this is an important skill that must be honed, in order to keep oneself aware of the do’s and don’ts of cultural happenings. The United Nations (UN) has officially set the 21st of May as World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, and annually, South Korea holds a festival during this month. Being active and participating in events like this is a surefire way of having consumers learn about different cultures and how to rightfully celebrate our differences. Individuals may also choose to partake in activities such as exchange student programs, food bazaars, seminars, and more if they are interested. Many indoor activities such as reading books and watching films that were created by authors and directors from different countries could also help stimulate and support the same cause.

Although modern technology and the advent of social media have made the world seem much smaller than it used to be a decade ago, this has not abolished geographical and cultural differences. As different parts of the world continue to reach out and communicate with each other, individuals must work even harder to respect the perceived differences between them and other ethnicities. The Sungkyun Times (SKT) hopes that all Kingos will take a bigger interest in learning about different cultures and refrain from taking something that is not theirs.

이슬  leesleisabel@gmail.com

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