Cultural Appropriation Defined


Times Now

Selena Gomez wearing a bindi and Indian garments in a performance at the MTV Movie Awards.

I was nine years old walking through my local mall when I caught a glimpse of an award show performance playing on a TV. It was of Selena Gomez’s new song “Come & Get It”, and she was dressed in traditional Indian attire, wearing a bindi, and dancing in Bollywood-inspired style. Since I was young at the time, I didn’t really think much about it. But now that I’m older, I can’t help but consider it as inappropriate and problematic

In the performance, Selena Gomez incorporated the clothing, dancing, and bindi simply for their aesthetic, disregarding all of the true meaning behind these cultural elements. Even though she changed the music video after receiving backlash, she still posted a picture of herself in a sari, a traditional Indian garment, captioned “sari, not sari.” Gomez using these traditional customs as an accessory not only dismisses the actual meaning of the attire and bindi but also reduces the significance of the oppression and discrimination of the people who get mocked for them.

Selena Gomez Instagram post from 2014.

The bindi, a forehead decoration originating from Hindu culture, is most commonly a red dot that represents a married woman; but is also said to be the third eye in the Hindu religion which can ward off bad luck. Selena Gomez wore this and got praised for it because it was exotic and trendy, but meanwhile, others wear it because it actually pertains to their culture…. Yet they are constantly discriminated against for being different.

What I had just seen was one of the infinitely many examples of cultural appropriation. Non-black people wearing African hair, dressing up as “Mexican” or any other cultures for Halloween, blackface, sports teams using Native Americans as mascots, wearing sacred religious symbols just for the aesthetic—the list could go on and on.

Cultural appropriation is the act of adopting elements of an outside, often minority, culture including knowledge, practices, and symbols, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context.

Disrespecting, mocking, and simply just taking aspects of other cultures without giving credit demeans the significance, value, and importance that the culture itself holds, and dumbs down the rich history and origins to it just simply being a “fashion look”, in Gomez’s case.

However, cultural appreciation is not bad. Cultural appreciation occurs when someone of a different culture honors and respect where the practice or symbol came from, also gaining understanding and knowledge from it.

A good way to appreciate a culture is simply to engage in it, but not steal any part of it that doesn’t belong to you. By just enjoying their food, listening to their music, reading their literature, analyzing their art, and more, you’re learning and understanding more about said culture without disrespecting it.

In a lot of cases, people don’t understand where the line can be drawn within cultural appropriation and appreciation.

Sophomore Michelle Hwang believes the line is drawn when the custom/object in question is presented in a way that disrespects its origins.Appropriation often causes misunderstanding that hinders rather than helps development.”

You can’t just pick and choose which parts of our culture you accept while discriminating against the actual people whom it belongs to.”

— NAI Sophomore

This misunderstanding becomes a big problem especially around Halloween when many people think it’s okay to dress up as another culture. For example, the image on the right is a huge problem for multiple reasons.

The meaning of the feather in Native American culture is a high honor. It symbolizes strength, wisdom, honor, power, freedom, and trust, and a connection between the owner and the bird from which the feather came from. Warriors were awarded a feather when Native Americans were brave in war or won a battle.

Making Native American clothing also has a huge significance. Clothing is an important factor in cultural and religious ceremonies, and many decorations and patterns are symbolic of specific tribes, stature, and power.

Fearless Apparel
“Native American woman” Halloween costume

However, all of this rich history is ridiculed and mocked when large corporations take these visual elements from their culture to make a profit and benefit from them when they are already a marginalized group.

An anonymous sophomore thinks appreciating turns to appropriation when there is a lack of understanding and you are just blatantly taking credit for something that is an important part of someone else’s culture. She also believes that there are certain sacred things reserved for religious ceremonies or certain groups of people that should never be appropriated. Overall, she loves sharing her culture and doesn’t want to scare anyone away from trying new things, but it should just be done respectfully.

“The biggest reason why I don’t think this is okay is that it’s usually the same people that will first mock your people, food, accents, etc. and later decide that some sacred part of your culture would make a costume or accessory that is seen as their own original idea. As an Indian American, I’ve seen so many parts of my culture get appropriated, most of which have very strong religious significance and ancient roots, and it hurts because it’s those same people that now ask us for bindis to wear to music festivals and other clothing and jewelry pieces that they think look nice. You can’t just pick and choose which parts of our culture you accept while discriminating against the actual people whom it belongs to.”

American Eagle Outfitters created “Ganesha Sandals” as a product, with the Hindu god Ganesha on the soles of the sandal.

India TV
American Eagle Outfitter’s “Ganesha Sandals”

Ganesha is a Hindu god, worshipped as the god of education, wisdom, and wealth. His head represents the soul, and his body represents mankind’s earthly existence. Putting him on a sandal suggests stomping on and disrespecting this god of great respect and admiration in the Hindu religion. Just because Ganesha might seem as “exotic” or “fashionable” to a large fashion corporation doesn’t mean he should be demeaned to a design on a sandal that disregards all of his meaning.

Appropriation should not be confused with appreciation. It is 100% okay to appreciate things of another culture—understanding, respecting, and learning from it. But if you even have to think twice of if what you’re doing is disrespectful or not, you probably just shouldn’t do it.