Culture not Costume

By Faeeza Iftikhar. Faeeza, 15, lives in Manchester, UK. She is a student at Levenshulme High School for girls. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below. *Shortlisted for the NUHA Youth Blogging Prize 2017*

As a lover of travel and adventure, I have learned over time that every country, every city and every home has a culture of its own. The beauty of culture surrounds us consistently. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, that’s up to us.

There are many aspects of culture and each one roars with beauty. Having been born and raised in the UK, I have still been taught from an early age that culture is a substantial part of ones’ life. Originating from a south Asian background, I’m familiar with the customs and traditions that lay within south Asian culture: The finely detailed and embroidered garments which we take so much pride in wearing; the delicate geometric touch of henna streaking and tattooing the surface of our hands and the familiar warmth of spice, flavor and excitement.

Then there’s the rest of the world: Turkey, Greece, India, Dubai, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Ethiopia… Every country is completely different.

Travelling and living in harmony with others has taught me that no country is better than the other, simply because you cannot compare them. They are all different and unique in their own way.

Hence, cultural appreciation is the main thing, in society today, that binds us together with others and makes our civilization so much more culturally diverse and aware. We honor one another by practicing each other’s traditions and mores and exchanging values. It is extremely important to note that appreciation involves respect and value.

Cultural exchange/appreciation occurs when two groups, on relatively equal footing, meaning one isn’t oppressing the other, share cultural items, ideas or traditions with each other in a respectful and informed way. A cultural group or group member is willingly sharing their culture with another group and defining the exchange on their own terms.

However cultural appropriation is an entirely different matter. Cultural appropriation is basically when you take something from a culture you don’t belong to and use it outside of that cultural context; usually without understanding it’s cultural significance and often, at times, changing its original meaning. For example, the swastika, which we are all familiar with as a symbol used by the Nazis during the Holocaust. However, originally the swastika was used as a sacred symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism to represent prosperity, good luck and liberation. However, it started being associated with rather opposite concepts in the 1920s when it was appropriated by the Nazi party. This is the perfect example of an outside group taking something of religious and cultural significance and changing its original meaning so that it’s no longer accessible to the group that it was taken from.

Modern examples of cultural appropriation include Katy Perry performing in a modified kimono and Selena Gomez shooting her 2013 single ‘Come and Get it’ from her debut album ‘Solo Dance’ dressed in a South Asian sari and bindi, degrading it to just a sheer costume. How is this right? Changing the meaning of a significant religious element and turning it into just a mere fashion accessory or fashion statement.

Furthermore, for centuries black women have been criticized and laughed at for wearing natural hairstyles such as cornrows, being told that their hair is ‘too ethnic or African’. The styles that originate from their homeland are called unattractive and unprofessional with the texture often being referred to as ‘untidy’ and ‘dirty.’ Many of these natural hairstyles have even been banned from schools and many African women have also lost their jobs to this because their natural hair is seen as ‘too distracting.’

Black women have been wearing these hairstyles for years. It is part of their identity and plays a substantial part in their culture. But it wasn’t until a celebrity with European features wore this hairstyle, that it was seen as ‘cool’ and ‘trendy.’ For instance, Kim Kardashian. When the dominant group appropriates, they are deemed as ‘innovative’ and ‘edgy,’ while the group they supposedly ‘borrow’ from continue to face negative stereotypes that imply they’re lacking in intelligence and creativity.

Whilst white people are praised for altering their bodies, plumping their lips and tanning their skin, black women are shamed although the same features exist on them naturally. What looks ghastly, horrible and repulsive on the actual culture, looks ‘cool’ and ‘exotic’ on the oppressors.  How can this be? A culture is supposed to be something that is vibrant, unique and homely to the person that belongs to that culture. A culture is what gives you history and what makes you interesting- It gives you a sense of belonging to a certain group. It isn’t there to be stolen or made fun of. A culture is sacred and it’s what makes you, you. It influences the way you dress, dance, how you act, what food you eat, and the list goes on.

Therefore, religious and culturally significant clothing shouldn’t be reduced to a costume. Everybody needs to learn this.

Additionally, Cultural appropriation highlights the power and balance there remains between those in power and those who have been systematical oppressed throughout history.

Overall, the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation can sometimes be perceived as kind of blurry; so here are some questions you should be asking yourselves before incorporating parts of a culture that you don’t belong to:

Is it a genuine representation?

Is it a sacred item or part of a sacred tradition or ritual?

Who wears the item or participates in the tradition? Is it just anybody or is it respected members of the community that had to go through a specific process in order to gain access to it?

Is it from a group who have been historically discriminated against and might that group still be discriminated against today?

It is extremely important when exchanging culture to think critically about whether or not we’re using accurate representations and if those representations perpetuate negative stereotypes about the culture they belong to. You may think you are praising the culture however, perpetuating stereotypes only simplifies and reduces those cultures rather than celebrating them. By reducing these cultures, we are reducing the people that belong to them and thus make it easier to justify their oppression.


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