Cultural Appropriation is not Festival Fashion

Festival season is in full swing, and white girls in bindis and braids are out in their thousands. I can't refresh Instagram without a sigh of disappointment as a girl I follow posts a wink-peace-and-pout selfie adorned in a cheap version of the traditional jewellery, or seeing another photo of Kylie Jenner appropriating black culture with every fibre of her being (but it’s ok because Justin Bieber said so). Perhaps even more surprisingly, popular brands are sharing those same images with hundreds of thousands of followers, seemingly without a second thought. Even the Native American headdress is still making an appearance in white people's party pics, despite festivals such as Glastonbury finally banning the sale of them, and many a celebrity coming under fire for sporting them (remember Ellie Goulding's "Halloween costume" and Karlie Kloss at Victoria's Secret).

For those who don't know, cultural appropriation (CA) is the adoption of certain elements of one (typically oppressed) culture by another (typically dominant) culture. This, in my view, is wrong, and the aim of this post is to explain why. As a white girl I am not best suited to talk too loudly about the appropriation of other peoples' cultures, and with this in mind I asked Suki and Shope to help me out. I would like to use what platform I have to hopefully (without trying to sound too patronising) educate my audience, encourage discussion, and in particular I am concerned with making bloggers and brands who themselves have large audiences realise that what they are doing is in inappropriate, offensive and (yes) racist, no matter how well intentioned they are. This isn't targeted at one particular blogger or one particular brand because there are just so many still doing it, but if it applies to you please pay attention to what Suki, Shope and I have to say. Make yourself a brew because it is quite a long one; calling all bloggers, brands and social media influencers: cultural appropriation is not festival fashion.

Focusing on the issue of bindis, here's what my fabulous Pakistani friend Suki Deen has to say:

Why do you want to wear a bindi? The majority of the time, people want to wear it as a fashion statement simply because they think it looks "cool", thus appropriating a culture whilst remaining ignorant to the meaning it holds to others. They see no problem in this, and I can understand where that attitude comes from. I hear a lot of people say that they wouldn't mind if an Asian adopted something from their culture, but this is exactly where the problem lies - this isn't a cultural exchange. For a cultural exchange to happen, there needs to be understanding and respect, which if I'm honest, most people who wear the bindi as a fashion statement don't have. For a cultural exchange to happen, there needs to be understanding and respect, which if I'm honest, most people who wear the bindi as a fashion statement don't have. You can't take whatever you like from another, marginalised culture for your own self expression just because you think it looks good, whilst remaining uneducated and ignorant towards its symbology.  
I was raised often wearing traditional Asian clothing, and I'm sure other British Asians will agree that we are more than aware of the looks we often get for being "different" when dressed this way. We've all heard jokes about Indian women having red dots on their forehead, but when a white person does it it's simply a cute alternative fashion accessory for their festival outfit. The people you have appropriated the bindi from do not have the same privilege as you.  Unless you have directly experienced this for yourself, you will probably not be aware of the privilege you have and what it feels like to be looked at as an outsider due to your traditional dress. This is a sensitive topic, and I hate to separate people into groups based on their race or culture but that is essentially what it comes down to - something that is socially acceptable for one group is not for another. I find people being complimented for wearing the same bindi that Asians would be penalised or mocked for quite annoying; it is a double standard. To some people out there, the woman who wears a bindi because it represents her culture is just some Indian lady with a weird red dot on her forehead, and you are not liberating or appreciating her culture in any way by simply going to some high street store and buying a pack of stick on bindis to wear on your forehead because you want to look edgy in your selfies on Instagram.  
I know there are many differing opinions on this, and I am not saying that I am against people having an interest in things from other cultures. Appreciating other cultures is a great thing - it can break down stereotypes and promote education on other ethnicities and religions. What I am against is people doing this with a lack of knowledge and respect. To people saying they see no harm in it and that it's okay, ask yourself - who are you to dictate what is and isn't acceptable when it isn't your culture that is being appropriated? The problem, for me personally, lies in the adaptation and acceptance of Asian culture without the acceptance of Asian people.
Why do you want to wear a bindi? If you want to wear one because you think it's just some cute fashion accessory – please don't.

The girls who would mock a South Asian girl for wearing traditional dress at school are the same girls who just bought a different bindi for every day of Secret Garden Party, and that is the abysmally unfair reality of how the fashion and beauty worlds are still structured to benefit people with white skin, and how cultural appropriation perpetuates this in the most disrespectful manner. For more on bindis, take a look at this interview with Sanam, aka Rihanna's extremely badass henchwoman in her new video for BBHMM. 

Cultural appropriation in fashion doesn't stop at the bindi. I asked the gorgeous and incredibly articulate Shope Delano of Sassy Black to weigh in on fashion's appropriation of black culture:

Cultural appropriation is probably the most over-used phrase of 2015, but not without good reason. I think it has been pretty conducive in awakening many people to the possibility that some of their fashion choices are causing deep offence. Unfortunately, awareness is still not enough to stop the defiant few, *cough* Kylie Jenner *cough*.

I don’t think it is outlandish to say that cultural appropriation is a form of racism. That’s because it is a form of racism. But when people hear the word ‘racist’ their defence mechanisms go into over-drive, and instead of them actually attempting to rationally understand the racial implications of wearing braids, corn-rows, or other typically black hairstyles, they fiercely object to the possibility that anything they say or do, could ever be racist, because ‘they would never intend to cause harm’, or ‘they have a black friend’, or ‘a hairstyle can’t be racist’.

Whilst the first response fails to acknowledge the undeniable fact that many racist beliefs and behaviours are ingrained into a person due to us living in a white supremacist society, (irrespective of whether they intended it or not), and the second response really not worth addressing, I’d quite like to briefly discuss the third response, regarding the whole ‘a hairstyle can’t be racist’ drivel.

Lets be concise: you are taking the parts of black culture, that suit you - the parts that are currently trendy, or the parts that are currently profitable (braid bars, anyone?). You’re dipping into a culture, that we, blacks, don’t have the choice to dip out of. It would be ideal if there was an ‘opt-out’ option for institutionalised racism, police brutality, problematic stereotyping. It’d be ideal if we could be black, without being black, you know? It’d be ideal if we could keep the desirable traits such as profitable ‘urban’ hairstyles and ‘fuller’ lips, but forget the painful past, and just dodge the tasers, bullets, and mysterious prison deaths. 
There is a huge ignorance to context, both past and present. Racism, without getting into the nuances of it, is based on the belief that one race is superior to another. White privilege, is a subconscious superiority complex, which many refuse to be aware of. CA is the result of privilege, and thus is the result of beliefs of racial superiority, and thus, is racist.
That is, if we’re being concise. 
On the issue of cultural appropriation amongst fashion brands, bloggers and social influencers: it is of course rampant, but that is simply because it still exists in the fashion industry. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon. Similarly, to expend energy and penalise brands for producing and selling trends that appropriate marginalised cultures, may not be most productive. However, what each blogger and influencer can individually do, is be more critical of the ideas that they are maintaining and promoting, through the products they choose to feature on their blog or social media. Wearing accessories that closely resemble Native American headdresses in the name of ‘festival fashion’ is maintaining CA as a social phenomena. It is saying racism, is a-OK.

Of course, every blogger has complete creative discretion over the projects that they work on, and has the complete right to produce content without judgement. I’m just asking that we be a little more critical of the messages that we may be promoting. 
We need to be stop being scared of the word ‘racist’. Racism comes in different shapes and forms. Lets stop avoiding it. Lets get to know, and understand why it may apply to certain actions/beliefs we may have, instead of covering our ears and running a mile every time we hear it. Lets try to educate ourselves a little!

The mini essays above have scratched the surface of the perpetually important issue of cultural appropriation. The purpose of this post is not to outline what is and is not ok when it comes to the more fine-line specifics of borrowing from other cultures. Rather, its purpose is to inform and encourage everyone (but especially bloggers, brands and other social media influencers) to think twice about some of their sartorial decisions and where they are 'borrowed' from. TL;DR? If you're a white girl wearing a bindi at a festival, just stop. 

Words by:
Hannah Farrington @hannahlouisef
Suki Deen @sukideen
Shope Delano @shopedelano / sassyblack.com      

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