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When Culture and Identity Become a Currency

There are thousands of examples where people unknowingly use an element foreign to their own culture but sacred to another, the phenomenon of cultural appropriation is still very much alive.


You know those cute little skulls with floral motives, now often called sugar skulls, that you buy at your local store for Halloween, or that you dress up as? They have a long story that dates to 3,000 years ago in Mexico. The traditional Día de los Muertos has a deep meaning and now some of its elements are seen as a nice costume to be replicated without learning or taking into account the culture it is being taken from.


Just like this example, there are countless occasions where this situation has been repeated. Take the case of Vanessa Hudgens, considered the ‘Queen of Coachella’ for sporting bohemian looks that often included bindis, dream catchers and face paint, all of which are sacred to a particular community but have become mere accessories.


It seems that making money from the traditions of different populations across the world has become standard practice. To add insult to injury, those who “take inspiration” from expressions of identity in various cultures do not even take a look at the people who created them.


Professor Susan Scafidi defines this issue as the use of intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions or artifacts from someone else’s culture without their permission. Some of these forms include cuisine, music, art, dances, religious symbols, etc. “It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects” according to Scafildi.


Most of the time, headlines show examples that come from the fashion industry. One notorious example featured model Karlie Kloss strutting down the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show with turquoise jewelry and a massive Amerindian headdress in 2012. It sparked immediate criticism and was later removed from the TV broadcast, but the harm was already done. The fact here is that the indigenous people of the United States have a long history that includes oppression and discrimination, and their culture has been twisted into offensive Halloween costumes and other merchandise where, in most cases, none of the profits from selling these products go to them.


Along the same lines is the case of French designer Isabel Marant. In 2015, she was accused of using patterns from the Mexican indigenous community of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec in a blouse that sold for a high price. The pattern has existed for 600 years and is traditional to these people who sought reparations after it was branded as a ‘novel’ design by Marant. The same design was even claimed by a rival fashion brand prior to the discovery of its true origin. Nevertheless, the French artist claimed that she had presented submissions that explicitly pointed out that the pattern belonged to the Mexican community.


As this dispute settled, another arose just last year involving the House of Marant yet again. In November 2020 the Mexican Minister of Culture, Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, sent a letter to the fashion label arguing that one of their most recent pieces depicted traditional patterns from another community, the Purepechas, without acknowledging them. After the accusations surfaced, the brand issued an apology in which it said that the intention was to “promote a craft and pay tribute to the aesthetic to which it is linked”. Frausto in response to this stated that: “When a tribute is made to a certain culture, that culture should be included, because although it may be an ancestral culture, it is alive.”


Time and time again brands have shown that they ‘take inspiration’ from a culture when in reality it is a smokescreen for copying the elements of identity from others as a marketable product that gives no recognition to the minds behind the original design.


This is just one of the many ways in which cultural appropriation has happened. At the center of this case, we find the Kardashian/Jenner clan. Multiple times they have been called out for using black hairstyles but failing to educate themselves about their background or use their huge platform to raise their voice against police brutality towards the black community. Here, and in other examples, we can see a blatant hypocrisy depending on the skin color of the wearer of these hairstyles.


For instance, in 2016 Kim, Kylie and Khloe all shared their new looks on Instagram – either cornrow braids or Bantu knots – that started being called ‘birthday braids’ or ‘boxer braids’, and the influencers were deemed trendsetters. Here is where the other side of the coin appears, while woman who does not belong to the community is praised for presenting the world with a new way to do their hair, black women can be legally fired for styling their hair in dreadlocks, braids and other styles that would not be considered appropriate per society’s standards in what is called the ‘policing of black hair’. The truth is, there is a long and painful history behind these hairstyles that has not been heard and even if they do not hold the same meaning as before, it is important to note that it is not a trend but part of an identity that was taken from them.


Besides appropriation, there is a notion that seems to be the excuse for many: appreciation. Cultural appreciation, according to Green Heart Organization, is “when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally”. You can appreciate and perhaps use elements from someone else’s culture in order to educate others about it. The takeaway here is not to exploit for one’s own use, but to learn about it.


The organization lists a few ways in which is possible to take part in a culture without falling into appropriation. This includes listening to members of that community, asking the question ‘would I be offended if a symbol from my culture was exploited with little regard to its significance?’, considering the context and different aspects of the culture.


This phenomenon will keep on existing unless we take a moment to review what may seem like innocent actions and think about others, about their history, their background, and the meaning of their culture. Appropriating an element that belongs to another means "stealing" from oppressed communities and marketing products that do not acknowledge the true origin of said element.


Written by Andrea Jaramillo Caro


Andrea Jaramillo Caro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.