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Cultural appropriation is a perennially difficult subject.
However, utilizing symbols of a particular group is not always cultural appropriation.
When someone wears, does or says something that has clear cultural or ethnic origins, it can evoke strong responses. That individual could be accused of appropriation if she/he/they aren’t believed to understand the significance of what they’re wearing, displaying or saying. This lack of understanding can even be viewed as cultural ambivalence or insensitivity if the element is utilized in a tone deaf or caricatured way. The same is true of cultural elements utilized for the sake of appearances --- to be part of a popular movement.
Conversely, cultural appreciation occurs when a person utilizes the element because they genuinely understand the meaning it invokes. Even then, it can be tough; you have to own your decision to use the element, even if you believe you’ve done the research.
How do you know what’s OK and what crosses the line? When I’m asked this question, I usually evaluate why I’m being asked.
If it seems to be because I’m the brown person you feel comfortable asking, I will likely tell you asking permission from your Black friend is a good sign you should refrain from doing whatever you’re considering. However, if I’m asked for my opinion as a person who has struggled with some of these same issues, my response usually starts with, “It’s complicated.”
I’d tell you I’ve had similar concerns, though I’m comfortable and proud to say I’m of European, African and Indigenous American heritage. I have worried about wearing garments representative of various elements of my heritage, fearing I’d be perceived as a cultural appropriator by those who don’t know my story.
I’d add this: The first time I attended an event where African dress was “strongly encouraged,” I was reluctant to comply.
The event took place at a historically Black university and was attended by people of African descent from across the globe. Prior to that opportunity, I would dip my smallest toe into African fashion --- a printed scarf here, a Swahili greeting there.
My reticence came from listening to voices imply that being of so-called “mixed” heritage meant I should play it safe by avoiding ethnic garb altogether. The internalized message was that my attempts would be viewed as cultural appropriation; maybe I had not earned a kilt, Kente cloth wrap or tear dress.
An event were African attire was all but required presented a rather huge dilemma for me. I had the perfect outfit: a Ghanaian slit (pronounced “sleet”), a long wrap skirt, and matching kaba, or top. I had bought it because I loved the print and colors and what they represented. The artisan who made it explained that such an outfit was like wearing your Sunday best. I had never worn it, telling myself I hadn’t had the right occasion.
When an irrefutable occasion presented itself, it challenged my belief that I was secure about my heritage. If I was comfortable in my own skin, what was stopping me from being comfortable in clothes that represent parts of my background?
Ultimately, I wore the outfit. I’d like to say I held my head high and enjoyed it, and I did - after about 45 minutes. I had to warm to the idea that my good intentions, respect and appreciation made wearing the outfit OK.
Those feelings - not my innate blackness - are what eventually made me feel as if I was not guilty of cultural appropriation. At the time, I didn’t know my specific DNA makeup or the origin of my Black ethnicity; I didn’t know if I had genetic or familial ties to Ghana. Instead, I was an outsider who had become educated in Ghanaian culture, history and politics. I had learned about the significance of a kaba and slit and the symbology of various colors and prints within that culture. I grew comfortable wearing the outfit because I appreciated the garments and what they symbolized.
I believe that’s the test for cultural appropriation. I believe that not because I’m a person of color but because I’m a person who’s interested in culture and ethnicity. As such, I don’t believe a person must throw out an African beaded necklace, shirts with Polynesian designs or other elements simply because it doesn’t represent her/his/their culture or ethnicity.
The test is understanding and intent, and both considerations must be present.
Is the element being used appropriately? Are my intentions free of a desire to appear trendy and/or enlightened? Do I use the element in a way that acknowledges, respects and honors the people whose traditions it represents? Have I done the work to thoroughly understand and reflect the cultural meaning?
These are the types of questions we all should ask before we use important symbols of ethnicity and culture.
Karris Golden is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org