At a fancy dress ball last year I had an interesting experience. It was an all-white affair, not because of racism but simply because the people involved all happened to be white. (The crowd was middle-aged to elderly, for the same reason.) Most of us wore historical costumes or modern formal wear. A few people wore fantasy clothes.
One couple wore Indian clothing... gorgeous stuff! The woman's dress (Lehenga choli? Luanchari? No midriff seen) was gold and red and heavily embroidered with gilt and beadwork, and her husband wore a white satin tunic and pants (achkan and churidar), also elaborately adorned. They looked great! So I complimented them, as you do, and they told me they'd recently been to India for a friend's wedding, and they'd been given the outfits to wear to the three-day celebrations.
Here's what made it interesting: when I first saw them, I had two reactions almost simultaneously: "pretty!" and * awkward *.
"Pretty" is an obvious reaction, but the awkward squirm is a peculiar social conditioning afflicting white people when we fear offending. I wanted to wear such a dress, and yet at the thought, a whole line of imaginary Indians marched into my head to scold me for cultural appropriation. How could I treat their clothes, a nuanced and traditional aspect of their culture, as a mere pretty thing that I could borrow for my own purposes? And when I heard that they were given the clothes by Indian people, I was like "That's okay, then--they have permission."
Cultural appropriation is when someone of a mainstream or dominant culture (usually a white person in these conversations) borrows aspects of the culture of another group, but in an ignorant way, as an accessory or fashion "statement", or to profit off it. It's not the same as simply sharing cultures or being influenced through contact and trade. It is colonialism in microcosm: "I have power, you don't. I take what I want and don't listen to what you have to say about it." It offends the groups being plundered, but it's hard for the dominant group to really understand why. "It's just a feather, what's the big deal?" or "I like kimonos, so what?" We might even flip the tables and say "I don't care that you wear my clothes!" But of course, that's not a fair comparison, since the history of abuse, marginalization, and exploitation doesn't run both ways (at least not usually, and the exceptions are not pertinent to this conversation). A white person wearing a war bonnet is not the same thing as a Native American wearing a cowboy hat... not at all!
(In the 60's, a lot of hippies adopted Native clothing to express support for a culture they admired. Was that appropriation or activism? For one thing, the "culture" they admired was often mythical--the idea of the noble savage and not the reality of the people. For another thing, it was always a function of white mainstream freedom to wear clothes that the Native Americans might be penalized for wearing.)
Yet, as the lovely couple at the ball demonstrate, being invited to participate in a culture is not the same as plundering it. A friend of mine is adopted Native, and occasionally goes to native events and gatherings with her friends who have invited her. She doesn't push in, or try to steal the show, or make herself unwelcome, she simply loves her friends and is part of the family. She has regalia, given to her. And while some Natives who don't know her might think she's a poser, the ones who matter to her, her family, say she's in, and there is love. You can't appropriate what's being given freely, can you?
If I went to a wedding and my hosts bought me a beautiful garment from their culture to wear, I would be honored. But, sadly, the specter of inequality still appears at the feast: if I invited someone from non-mainstream culture to come to my wedding, and I supplied their clothes so they could fit in and look like me, might they not being offended? Might it not seem that I was putting their culture down, suggesting that their clothes weren't good enough, trying to press them into my mold? The same action looks radically different when reversed. A white person invited into "ethnic" ways is honored, but a non-white person invited into white ways is at best mildly suspicious of condescension.
Obviously, context, intent, and attitude play a huge role in determining if something is cultural appropriation or not. Ignorance is the privilege of the dominant culture, and a lot of times we offend without realizing it, by copying things we don't understand, or reproducing stereotypes of the "exotic" that we don't realize are false. There are pictures of me as a child playing dress up with my sister, wearing outfits (made of bedsheets and safety pins) which can trace their genesis to overblown Hollywood films about the Middle East. Stuff I wouldn't dream of wearing now, because I know it's not true, and even if it were perfectly accurate, it's not mine. But obviously, as a child, I meant no ill.
I wonder if my fascination with historical costuming now is partly because I can claim the past, particularly Europe's past, without fear of overstepping. It's my history, after all. And while the culture of a hundred years ago is as alien to me as the culture of India, I feel freer to explore it, knowing that I won't offend anyone if I get things wrong.
Sometimes all this Politically Correct stuff feels like a mind-prison: Don't even think of dressing like anything you're not. Don't wear that turquoise jewelry or wrap your hair in pretty fabric or wear a pattern you're not "entitled" to! And some people do love to be offended, since it gives them power, so they trot out the "cultural appropriation" accusation whenever they see any kind of borrowing, even when they don't have the full story. But actually, if everyone stayed entirely within the culture they were born into, I think racism, stereotyping, and intolerance would increase, because we'd all think of the "other" as something untouchable and frightening. Being insular is not the answer.
I think about my blog name: Robes de Coeur, clothes of heart. We should think and care about what we wear, and especially about whether wearing it offends or misrepresents others. And the flip side of that, when we see others wearing something that we don't think they have a "right" to, we should show good hearts toward them, because we don't know what it means to them, and we don't have the whole story. No-one ever advanced cultural understanding by hurling accusations.
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