Writer: Mariajose Castillo
Editor: Adelyne Koe
Graphic Designer: Maulina Gheananta
Though the word ‘culture’ is often associated with the external characteristics of people, from how they speak, to their physical features, or their clothing, it is more than just your appearance. Culture unites you with your identity; it is what returns you to your roots and connects you with your cultural heritage. For this very reason, it should be something that every community is able to take pride in and embrace. However, culture has become a weapon used to marginalize and discriminate against BIPOC: Groups with greater privilege exploit and appropriate cultures for their own gain, but use it to dismiss and discriminate against the rightful owners, otherwise known as cultural appropriation.
Writer, curator, and activist Janice Deul describes cultural appropriation as the using of symbols from other cultures purely for aesthetic reasons, without the consideration of its meaning and significance. In the 21st century, this can be seen primarily within the fashion industry, which is becoming increasingly fast-paced, as cultural garments are being stolen and transformed into “trends”. To understand the problem behind this, we must differentiate between appreciation and appropriation. Appreciation is when we recognize the value of something, which, in this context, means appreciating the beauty and the history of a cultural garment. Unlike appreciation, appropriation is when people do not fully understand the background of the culture they are taking; they make it theirs without understanding where it comes from, what it is, or what it means.
While cultural appropriation may seem harmless at first glance, its effects on BIPOC are adverse. To illustrate, during the period of colonization in America and South America, the traditions and cultures of indigenous communities were criticized and discriminated against. Their clothing, hairstyles, and even food were depicted as "strange" and "inferior" through the eyes of white colonists. As a result, this prejudice led to marginalization, and affected many native communities even many years after. Today, 7 out of 10 indigenous people live in poverty, with a lack of education and therefore a lack of opportunities to improve their living conditions. Moreover, for many indigenous communities, much of their income comes from traditionally handcrafted pieces, which is now obstructed by corporations that mass-produce such products, selling cheap, copied versions of their work. It is a form of plagiarism that removes the cultural significance of the works of indigenous people, and simultaneously prevents them from improving their economy.
Despite this, there are no consequences for these corporations. It is not uncommon–or new–for large fashion brands to rob intrinsic cultural trademarks from different cultures. In Marc Jacobs’s 2017 summer fashion show, many white models were styled with dreadlocks, which are a significant part of African culture, often regarded as a connection to Africa and rejection from the West. In 2019, Gucci sold Indy Turbans for $790 dollars as an accessory, disrespecting the religious article of faith worn by Sikhs. Later on, many white models were also shown styling these turbans in a fashion show. Not only did both brands fail to address the cultural significance and history of the garments being used, but the blatant display of white models on the runway reveals the distinct racial and religious double standard: While white models unapologetically strutted down the runway and gained appraisal for wearing garments that weren’t rightfully theirs, communities of color are being neglected and discriminated against for wearing that very same hairstyle and piece. In other words, Marc Jacobs and Gucci were able to exploit and profit off cultures that weren’t theirs, while marginalized communities continue to be discouraged from wearing their own culture.
This is merely one of the many cases large corporations have appropriated BIPOC cultures. In 2020, the french brand Sézane paid 200 Mexican pesos (0.98 dollars) for an indigenous woman to be photographed to promote their new clothing line. In response, the National Institute of Indigenous People (INPI) sued the clothing brand for paying an extremely small wage to indigenous people. The INPI indicated that these actions "undermine the dignity of people and communities and reinforce racist stereotypes about indigenous culture and traditions." They also called out other brands that exploited indigenous people to stop using them as cultural capital.
Companies that use indigenous people as tokens for their campaigns and pay them unrighteously minimal amounts of money are violating Article 2 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which mentions that "Indigenous peoples and individuals are free and equal to all other peoples and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination in the exercise of their rights, in particular, that based on their indigenous origin or identity."
Today, we have the privilege of having access to information with a single click. It is in our hands to inform and educate ourselves so as not to contribute to causes that harm other people and their cultures. Before buying items from a company, we should be aware of the company’s values and ethics. Today, many domestic brands exist that do not violate the rights of Indigenous people. Every culture is unique and beautiful, and deserves to be showcased and used properly and rightfully. Appreciating means recognizing how cultural items entail the collective memories and historical continuity of a community. It does not deserve to be exploited for artificial reasons.