Cultural Appropriation: Style or Theft?

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By Caroline Reid

Rocking’ the Daisies signals the start of South Africa’s festival season, but are you worried about ‘doing a Hudgens?’ Not even sure what a ‘Hudgens’ is? (No, it’s not bursting out into a choreographed musical number). Vanessa Hudgens has repeatedly been accused of ‘cultural appropriation’ every time she steps out of her glam tent at the music festival, Coachella. Is Hudgens’ forehead bling just an innocent part of her eclectic style, or an insensitive cultural theft?

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture. The modern debate over cultural appropriation is whether it is offensive or not. On the Internet, opinions are as polarised as the North and South.

Avril Lavigne, teenage-rebel icon, turned heads as she began assimilating Japanese pop influence in her music in 2014 and Justin Bieber’s dreadlocks divided his Beliebers in 2016. Vanessa Hudgens has come under fire for wearing bindis, Native American headdresses, and saris. Even the fashion brand, Chanel, released an unusual item in its sportswear range: This $2000 boomerang, an indigenous Australian hunting tool that sparked outrage.

Last week, Asian-American basketball player, Jeremy Lin, launched a thousand tweets with just a new hair style. The Nets’ player’s new dreadlocks caught the attention of African-American basketball player, Kenyon Martin, who made his opinion on Lin’s new locks known via this Instagram video:

In the video (since removed from Instagram), Martin said

“Do I need to remind this damn boy that his last name Lin? Like, come on, man. Let’s stop this, man, with these people, man. There is no way possible that he would have made it on one of our teams with that bullshit going on on his head. Come on, man. Somebody need to tell him, like, ‘Alright, bro, we get it. You wanna be black.’ Like, we get it. But the last name is Lin.”

Martin accused Lin of ‘wanting to be black.’  The assumption is that Martin’s own culture has claimed a historical right to this hairstyle, and it is disrespectful for people outside of this community to adopt it. Dreadlocks, locs, dreads or ‘jata’ can be traced back to ancient Greece, Egypt, pre-Columbian aztecs and, more recently, Rastafarianism.

This particular example of cultural appropriation was more difficult to assess, especially after Lin’s response to Martin’s video, where he pointed out that Martin was sporting tattoos of Chinese characters.  Everyone will be guilty of offending someone with their personal style at some point, however, it is how we respond to these accusations that is the most important. For Lin and Martin, the red hot debate has died down, thanks in part to Lin’s kind response and also after a phone conversation that smoothed any bumps.

So, how can you prevent yourself from falling into the cultural appropriation ‘trap?’ By educating yourself and engaging with the people around you! Accepting that everyone makes choices that are uninformed and meeting them with an attitude that furthers conversation. Cultural appropriation is an evolving narrative but one that can lead to cultural appreciation and respect.

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