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In my closet there's a shirt with a giant outline of the Hindu deity Ganesha on the front. Whenever I see the shirt, I think of cultural appropriation and view the shirt skeptically—I wonder if, when I wore it, other people around me looked at it the same way.
Cultural appropriation is the use of cultural elements by those who don't identify with said culture. The lines are constantly blurred between what is acceptable, respectful, rude, or off-limits. Even opinions within appropriated cultures differ from each other.
I found Sanaa Hamid's photography project "Cultural Appropriation: A Conversation" on one of the most erratic Internet platforms available: Tumblr. The project features photos of people wearing cultural symbols for fashion purposes, and for cultural or religious purposes as well.
Below the photos are the subjects' comments on why they are wearing their chosen article of clothing. "It's only a scarf!" is written underneath a man sporting a keffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. The next photo is a different man also wearing a keffiyeh, and his comment is slightly more rooted: "With my keffiyeh, I am home, we are united."
Hamid identifies herself as a British Pakistani and wears a keffiyeh to support Syria, Palestine, and suppressed Islamic countries. Her views on cultural appropriation are strong, and she makes some fair points. "When cultures who are being appropriated are accepted and treated equally to Western society, then sure, it's fine. But if a Western person is accepted and applauded as 'quirky' and 'cool' for wearing a keffiyeh and a Middle Eastern is labelled a terrorist or 'towel head' and dismissed as such, then no, that's absolutely not okay," said Hamid via e-mail.
I posed the situation of a Ganesha on a T-shirt to Hamid, and was shot down without question, "Somebody with no link to the Hindu religion can not wear a T-shirt with Ganesha on it without it being offensive."
I proposed the same situation to Shashi Tripathi, a Hindu woman who has lived in the United States for 30 years. She began by saying, "See, I personally don't mind anything," and continued on with a drastically different perspective than Hamid's. "T-shirt is fine, we like to wear the religious symbols," she said. Tripathi then threw an example my way, regarding the Hindu symbol om, which has become something of a staple in Western countercultures. "Om is very sacred word for us, so we don't want om to be used on, like, shoes. You can wear necklace or the dress . . ." she trailed off and explained that it is the placement of these symbols that is the catalyst to anger. "We would not like to be put in dirty places," she said.
Contrasting opinions on the matter make it nearly impossible to draw a line as to what is acceptable, but what can sway a sentiment is the wearer's intentions. It seems harsh to condemn someone for wanting to promote and wear cultural symbols. If the intention is positive and informed, that seems all right. If a symbol or item is being worn simply to piss people off, that's going to be accomplished via cultural appropriation or another avenue.
But does exposing these symbols help them become more accepted? And is it possible to do so without losing the cultural significance? I proposed the question to Laurel Zwissler, a religion professor who has written and studied the subject.
She responded by first pointing out that no one is in a position to explain offense that is caused by someone else, and there is no real right answer. She then proposed a question to me: "Is it stealing, disrespect and damage, or is it harmless, if a little goofy, perhaps even misplaced envy?"
Her personal opinion was insightful. "I believe that there often are ways to use cultural borrowing as a tool to break down xenophobia," she said via e-mail. "Action needs to be conscious and conscientious, done as collaboration, rather than driven by gut-reaction consumerism."
And really, the action requires very little effort. Doing research, staying informed, and being conscious aren't choices anymore. The symbols represented are often important to their culture, and have been used traditionally for quite some time.
But could, as Zwissler suggested, cultural appropriation be some kind of fucked-up way to get over the hill of cultural judgment?
Maybe, but it's a game of telephone—as the symbols and traditions become more and more prevalent, the meaning could become more diluted, an issue that worries cultural purists in Western society.
Cultural traditions will always maintain their importance, though, and that's reason enough to untie the keffiyeh you bought from Urban Outfitters before it was pulled from the shelves. I asked Gerald Hankerson, outreach coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) his opinion on the keffiyeh being worn simply as a fashion accessory, "It's very interesting, so many things come into our pop culture without any full appreciation or full acknowledgement of what the originators intended," he said. He only hoped that anyone who wore it didn't harbor any Islamophobia: "What I'm realizing is that if you don't truly understand the religion, culture, and conflicts that are associated with the actual keffiyeh it makes it where it really represents a lack of education and understanding." He went on to explain that the scarf has been altered with different colors, patterns, and textures so much that it doesn't always reflect the traditional garb. In context, the scarf can represent someone that is in tune with the plight of Palestine, "particularly Syria currently, and that in and of itself makes it very admirable, but it's not a requirement," Hankerson said. He hasn't personally been bothered by individuals wearing it as a fashion statement.
Last year, Victoria's Secret made a similar mistake by having model Karlie Kloss strut down the runway in a Native American headdress and turquoise jewelry, even throwing some leopard-print underwear into the ensemble. I asked Albert Keahna, a member of the Meskwaki Tribe, what he thought of it. "That was a big mistake for the person who made her wear it like that, because traditionally women don't wear headdresses like that," he said. He explained that he knew of only one tribe in which women wore headdresses at all, and it's a matter and expression of spirituality. As far as patterns go, Keahna was all right with their being reproduced for the mainstream. "Promoting the culture like that is OK," he said, and went on to bring up people wearing turquoise and seeing Native representations in advertisements—"I think, Why should someone feel against that?" (He also expressed that he was down with the Chicago Blackhawks, and looked forward to the opening of an exhibit at the American Indian Center featuring donated hockey sticks from the Blackhawks, among other items.)
It all depends: the wearer, the intention, the context, the texture, education, and especially the object in question. Cultural motifs, as opposed to symbolic images, undoubtedly conjure different reactions—the issue can only be rehashed, reevaluated, worked over, and discussed, civilly. The general population loves a good reason to be pissed off, especially if that reason is centric to one's heritage. Zwissler said it best, "Ultimately, it's all about power: fashion is political because everything is."