There’s a very thin line between cultural appropriation and what we believe to be a basic appreciation and acceptance of fashion by today’s standards. A lot of people get offended when members of a ‘dominant tribe’ adopt certain elements of a ‘minority tribes’ culture into their dressing or general way of life. This definition and its varied interpretation is mind boggling in itself, as it gives credence to the fact that “these” formerly minority tribes have decided to remain “a minority” even in the face of advancement and unity across the world in the 21st century.

With evolution, man transitioned from the era of using foliage and animal skin to cover their nudity, to the present time where diverse types of fabric are used. The fashion industry continues to evolve, and with globalization and the opening of the world to increased trade and interaction, aspects of fashion from around the world got incorporated, mass produced and improved upon to keep in tune with fashionable trends.

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Daily, we hear stories of cultural appropriation in the news; and being of African descent, I know firsthand about the sufferings, hardship and sacrifices my ancestors were forced to endure to make things easier for me today—and I will forever be grateful to them for that. However, I am not going to go bat-shit crazy over a foreigner wearing fashion items native to my culture. Rather, I would feel proud, that someone, even an enemy from many centuries ago, appreciates the work of my people enough to put it on display on their bodies and in their homes. I would be proud. I will not be quick to assume that they wear it to diminish its importance, or to remind me of their dominance in the years past; I simply believe that they wear it because it looks beautiful, and are proud to show off, or associate with an item from a rich heritage.

This, is however not a popular perspective because there’s always someone somewhere taking offense about being marginalized, about seeing their country’s apparel on display to the rest of the world; about holding on to grudges that should have long been forgotten. What’s the purpose of holding on to past hurt? What’s the benefit of passing that hatred on to the new generation? What does it accomplish?

In terms of culture, when items and designs that have been so heavily prized as “native” to a particular tribe get sold in the market to the masses; why is the fashion industry blamed for incorporating similar styles and colors into their designs? How is fashion expected to evolve, when designers from so called minority groups (who openly wear white man designs) refuse to accept or allow other foreign designers be creative? How long will these minority tribes put their culture off limits to the rest of the world?

We are not living in the dark ages anymore. We encourage people, especially our kids, to study history and learn about cultures other than their own. Why then do we turn around and embarrass or punish these same kids for incorporating aspects of another’s culture into their everyday way of life? Are we to remain bound by the actions of our ancestors? Are the descendants still guilty of those offenses?

What’s Off Limits?

If religious artifacts, symbols or forms of dressing are off limits, then they should be kept off limits. We shouldn’t be seeing them on our tv screens, in movies, or in a local market down the street for all to buy. They should be relegated to the archives of museums in their country of origin, hidden from the eyes of foreigners and spoken about in whispers – a taboo of some sort if uttered to the hearing of outsiders. This is not the case, these somewhat sacred items get mass produced and sold cheaply at trade fairs and in the open market for everyone to admire and purchase.

Indeed, items used to symbolize faith (like the cross worn by Christians, Rosary by Catholics, Turbans by Sikhs etc.) should be respected and kept off limits, but to do this, the world needs to understand their symbolism so that they don’t ignorantly offend others. By educating us thoroughly, we know better than to wear them as fashion accessories or in ways disrespectful to people that practice the religion.

 What’s Acceptable?

As a female, I am allowed to wear male and female western outfits (trousers, shorts, ties etc.) and that is acceptable. However, if I put cornrows or dreadlocks in my hair (the Africans take offense); if I wear a cheongsam or qipao (the Chinese take offense); if I wear espadrilles (the Italians take offense); if I wear a sombrero or eat tacos (the Mexicans take offense); if I wear some native necklaces or headdresses (the Native Americans take offense); if I wear bindis, henna or practice yoga (the Indians take offense)… yet their designers, restaurants, movies and music are made especially for foreign consumption. What kind of world are we living in? When does all the criticism stop?

These clothing, fashion accessories, DVD’s, CD’s and food are being sold everywhere (and in most cases, by their nationals) from the China Town market located down the street, to the open markets and trade fairs all over the world. When I buy the qipao from a Chinese native, they pack it up in a bag and willingly accept my money. When I stroll into a Jamaican salon and request for cornrows to be put in my hair, I am able to discuss numerous options with the Jamaican hairdresser, who willingly accepts my money at the end of the appointment. Why would those same people openly criticize me when I go out in public wearing a qipao with cornrows in my hair?

My optician is Indian. My GP is American. My hairdresser is Jamaican. My spiritual Leader is European. My mechanics, TV technicians, Plumbing, Cable, Phone and Internet Service providers (and a long list of services and service providers) are owned and managed by people from various nationalities – and yet I am not complaining. Why should I treat their fashion any different?

Clothing at the end of the day are pieces of fabric held together by tiny threads. They are not sewn together by the skin of a minority tribe or using ornaments from a distant tribe. It is just fabric and thread. Having that fabric worn by a member of the ‘so called dominant tribe’ does nothing to the fabric; it does nothing to the designer who made some sweet money from the transaction; and it certainly does nothing to the country from which that design originated. It does not in any way cheapen the culture, signify continuous oppression, or diminish the sufferings and hardships experienced during slave trade or colonialism. It simply shows that a design proudly worn by someone from a previously hostile culture.

Why would I book a holiday to Asia to return with the same clothes on my back and items in my luggage? How do I appreciate other cultures and rich ancestry, when purchasing and wearing something as little as a bracelet or necklace is misconstrued to mean different offensive things? Why migrate? Why not remain closed off from the rest of the world? We can’t continue to subject ourselves to a minority or weak way of thinking. We can’t continue to look down on ourselves. We will always look back at the plight of our ancestors, look around at the benefits we’re enjoying now, and look forward to making the world a better place for our children. History is not simply a reminder of the things that went wrong, it is meant to educate and make us more accepting of people all around us; it is meant to teach us of the right way to live irrespective of skin color.

The world is now open. Immigration and mass migration is occurring at a fast pace. It is no longer possible to close off aspects of one’s tradition and culture from the rest of the world, especially when you’re living outside your country of origin, in a world without borders. People tend to forget that blood was equally shed in dominant economies’… everyone at some point was involved in a fight for justice.

The Hard Truth

I have no problem with aspects of my culture being enjoyed by other people, as a matter of fact, I embrace it. However, if there are aspects that are sacred to my people, it is my duty to ensure that the rest of the world learns about it and treats it with respect.

You put on clothes, someone takes offense. You go naked, someone takes offense. Do we revert to the stone age where it was acceptable to use foliage and animal skin to cover our modesty just to keep people happy? Fashion is fluid. It will always evolve to incorporate colors and designs from the past, present, and future while showing aspects of our diverse cultures. It is time to get over bias and live freely.

That is all!