The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation

Borrowing from other cultures isn’t just inevitable; it’s potentially positive.

Valentino’s collection at Paris Fashion Week
Valentino’s collection at Paris Fashion Week (Patrick Kovarik / AFP / Getty Images)

Sometime during the early 2000s, big, gold, “door-knocker” hoop earrings started to appeal to me after I’d admired them on girls at school. It didn’t faze me that most of the girls who wore these earrings at my high school in St. Louis were black, unlike me. And while it certainly may have occurred to me that I—a semi-preppy dresser—couldn’t pull them off, it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t.

This was before the term cultural appropriation jumped from academia into the realm of internet outrage and oversensitivity. Self-appointed guardians of culture have proclaimed that Miley Cyrus shouldn’t twerk, white girls shouldn’t wear cornrows, and Selena Gomez should take off that bindi. Personally, I could happily live without ever seeing Cyrus twerk again, but I still find many of these accusations alarming.

At my house, getting dressed is a daily act of cultural appropriation, and I’m not the least bit sorry about it. I step out of the shower in the morning and pull on a vintage cotton kimono. After moisturizing my face, I smear Lucas Papaw ointment—a tip from an Australian makeup artist—onto my lips before I make coffee with a Bialetti stovetop espresso maker a girlfriend brought back from Italy. Depending on the weather, I may pull on an embroidered floral blouse I bought at a roadside shop in Mexico or a stripey marinière-style shirt—originally inspired by the French, but mine from the surplus store was a standard-issue Russian telnyashka—or my favorite purple pajama pants, a souvenir from a friend’s trip to India. I may wear Spanish straw-soled espadrilles (though I’m not from Spain) or Bahian leather sandals (I’m not Brazilian either) and top it off with a favorite piece of jewelry, perhaps a Navajo turquoise ring (also not my heritage).

As I dress in the morning, I deeply appreciate the craftsmanship and design behind these items, as well as the adventures and people they recall. And while I hope I don’t offend anyone, I find the alternative—the idea that I ought to stay in the cultural lane I was born into—outrageous. No matter how much I love cable-knit sweaters and Gruyere cheese, I don’t want to live in a world where the only cultural inspiration I’m entitled to comes from my roots in Ireland, Switzerland, and Eastern Europe.

There are legitimate reasons to step carefully when dressing ourselves with the clothing, arts, artifacts, or ideas of other cultures. But please, let’s banish the idea that appropriating elements from one another’s cultures is in itself problematic.

Such borrowing is how we got treasures such as New York pizza and Japanese denim—not to mention how the West got democratic discourse, mathematics, and the calendar. Yet as wave upon wave of shrill accusations of cultural appropriation make their way through the internet outrage cycle, the rhetoric ranges from earnest indignation to patronizing disrespect.

And as we watch artists and celebrities being pilloried and called racist, it’s hard not to fear the reach of the cultural-appropriation police, who jealously track who “owns” what and instantly jump on transgressors.

In the 21st century, cultural appropriation—like globalization—isn’t just inevitable; it’s potentially positive. We have to stop guarding cultures and subcultures in efforts to preserve them. It’s naïve, paternalistic, and counterproductive. Plus, it’s just not how culture or creativity work. The exchange of ideas, styles, and traditions is one of the tenets and joys of a modern, multicultural society.

So how do we move past the finger pointing and coexist in a way that’s both creatively open and culturally sensitive? In a word, carefully.

1. Blackface Is Never Okay

This is painfully obvious. Don’t dress up as an ethnic stereotype. Someone else’s culture or race—or an offensive idea of it—should never be a costume or the butt of a joke.

You probably don’t need an example, but U.S. fraternity parties are rife with them. Sports teams such as the Washington Redskins, and their fanbases, continue to fight to keep bigoted names and images as mascots—perpetuating negative stereotypes and pouring salt into old wounds. Time to move on.

2. It’s Important to Pay Homage to Artistry and Ideas, and Acknowledge Their Origins

Cultural appropriation was at the heart of this year’s Costume Institute exhibition, “China: Through the Looking Glass,” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. There was a great deal of hand-wringing in advance of the gala celebrating the exhibition’s opening—a glitzy event for the fashion industry that many expected to be a minefield for accidental racism (and a goldmine for the cultural-appropriation police).

Rihanna’s dress for the Met Gala was made by the Chinese designer Guo Pei in her Beijing atelier. (Charles Sykes / Invision / AP)

Instead, the red carpet showcased some splendid examples of cultural appropriation done right. Among the evening’s best-dressed was Rihanna, who navigated the theme with aplomb in a fur-trimmed robe by Guo Pei, a Beijing-based Chinese couturier whose work was also part of the Met’s exhibition. Rihanna’s gown was “imperial yellow,” a shade reserved for the emperors of ancient Chinese dynasties, and perfectly appropriate for pop stars in the 21st century. Rihanna could have worn a Western interpretation, like this stunning Yves Saint Laurent dress Tom Ford designed for the label in 2004, but she won the night by rightfully shining the spotlight on a design from China.

3. Don’t Adopt Sacred Artifacts as Accessories

Karlie Kloss in a headdress at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show (Jamie McCarthy / Getty Images)

When Victoria’s Secret sent Karlie Kloss down the runway in a fringed suede bikini, turquoise jewelry, and a feathered headdress—essentially a “sexy Indian” costume—many called out the underwear company for insensitivity to Native Americans, and they were right.

Adding insult to injury, a war bonnet like the one Kloss wore has spiritual and ceremonial significance, with only certain members of the tribe having earned the right to wear feathers through honor-worthy achievements and acts of bravery.

“This is analogous to casually wearing a Purple Heart or Medal of Honor that was not earned,” Simon Moya-Smith, a journalist of the Oglala Lakota Nation, told MTV.

For this reason, some music-festival organizers have prohibited feather headdresses. As The Guardian points out, it’s anyone’s right to dress like an idiot at a festival, but someone else’s sacred object shouldn’t be a casual accessory. (Urban Outfitters, take note.)

4. Remember That Culture Is Fluid

“It’s not fair to ask any culture to freeze itself in time and live as though they were a museum diorama,” says Susan Scafidi, a lawyer and the author of Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law. “Cultural appropriation can sometimes be the savior of a cultural product that has faded away.”

A denim processor in Kojima, Japan (Chris McGrath / Getty Images)

Today, for example, the most popular blue jeans in the U.S.—arguably the cultural home, if not the origin of the blue jean—are made of stretchy, synthetic-based fabrics that the inventor Levi Strauss (an immigrant from Bavaria) wouldn’t recognize. Meanwhile, Japanese designers have preserved “heritage” American workwear and Ivy League style by using original creations as a jumping-off point for their own interpretations, as W. David Marx writes in Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style:

America may have provided the raw forms for Japan’s fashion explosion, but these items soon became decoupled from their origin … More importantly, the Japanese built new and profound layers of meaning on top of American style—and in the process, protected and strengthened the original for the benefit of all. As we will see, Japanese fashion is no longer a simple copy of American clothing, but a nuanced, culturally rich tradition of its own.

Not to mention the ne plus ultra for many American denim-heads.

5. Don’t Forget That Appropriation Is No Substitute for Diversity

At Paris Fashion Week earlier this month, the Valentino designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli sent out a collection they acknowledged was heavily influenced by Africa.

“The real problem was the hair,” wrote Alyssa Vingan at Fashionista, pointing out that the white models wore cornrows, a style more common for those with African hair, “thereby appropriating African culture.”

In a recent video that went viral, the African American actress Amandla Stenberg offered an eloquent discourse on the complex cultural context of cornrows. But the real problem at Valentino was not the hair; it was the conspicuous absence of women of color on the runway. Lack of diversity is an issue for the entire industry, but the problem was particularly visible at Valentino, where the designers talked the talk of multicultural acceptance:

“The message is tolerance,” Piccioli told Vogue, “and the beauty that comes out of cross-cultural expression.”

If that’s the point, the faces on the catwalk—regardless of their hairstyle—should reflect it.

6. Engage With Other Cultures on More Than an Aesthetic Level

“What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?” asks Stenberg in the aforementioned video, a particularly salient point in an America coming to terms with an epidemic of police violence against young black men.

The rapper and TV personality Nicki Minaj echoed the message in The New York Times Magazine, in reference to Miley Cyrus, who criticized Minaj’s comments about being overlooked for the Video Music Awards because of her race.

Nicki Minaj at the MTV Video Music Awards (Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images)

‘‘Come on, you can’t want the good without the bad,” Minaj said. “If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us. You shouldn’t not want to know that.’’

Cherry-picking cultural elements, whether dance moves or print designs, without engaging with their creators or the cultures that gave rise to them not only creates the potential for misappropriation; it also misses an opportunity for art to perpetuate real, world-changing progress.

7. Treat a Cultural Exchange Like Any Other Creative Collaboration—Give Credit, and Consider Royalties

Co-branded collaborations are common business deals in today’s fashion industry, and that’s just how Oskar Metsavaht, the founder and creative director of the popular Brazilian sportswear brand Osklen, treated his dealings with the Asháninka tribe for Osklen’s Spring 2016 collection.

Francisco Piyako, an Asháninka representative, told Quartz the tribe will get royalties from Osklen’s spring 2016 collection, as well as a heightened public awareness of their continued struggle to protect land against illegal loggers and environmental degradation.

Osklen's Spring 2016 collection (Oskar Metsavaht / Lynda Churilla / Osklen)

In return, Metsavaht returned from his visit with the Asháninka with motifs and concepts for Osklen’s spring 2016 collection: Tattoos were reproportioned as a print on silk organza; the striking “Amazon red” of a forest plant accented the collection; and women’s fabric slings for carrying children reappeared in the crisscross shape of a dress. Metsavaht’s photographs of the Amazon forest, the Asháninka, and wild animals also appeared on garments, as well as Osklen’s website.

“Sharing values, sharing visions, sharing the economics, I think it’s the easiest way to work,” Metsavaht said. “This is the magic of style. It’s the magic of art. It’s the magic of the design.”

And it’s a magic that I’d be happy to appropriate for my closet.