The New Hipster Zeitgeist: Cultural Appropriation

By Elliott Banuelos on October 11, 2012

 Okay. I am going to take a long deep breath before I get too angry and start pounding on my keyboard. Alright, here we go.

Cultural appropriation - the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group.

I can’t be the only one that has noticed the vast growth of cultural appropriation in hipster culture. Go to any Urban Outfitters, look through some Tumblr blogs only to find a picture with over 20,000 notes of white girls wearing bindis and saris, talking about “appreciating the culture” or telling people of color, “Hey! Take it as a compliment!” … Uh, what?
We’ve got another picture coming up, some more white teenage girls with 50,000+ in war bonnets and face paint—“I am transethnic; born white but inside I am Native. Wearing this war bonnet and face paint makes me feel so much more connected to my inner-culture.” Again… seriously? This is a thing?

Let me break it down a bit here. It is especially hard to be a socially aware person, and move past the UC Santa Barbara white girl tribes at Coachella (which, actually happened. My girlfriend was an eye-witness), just to think, “Well, they probably don’t know any better. They’ll learn soon enough!”

But what if they don’t? How can one follow the fashion trends without being culturally appropriative? Where do we draw the line when it comes to appreciating a culture, or appropriating the culture?

Here are a few pointers:

  1. Basically, on less wordy terms, cultural appropriation is perpetuating caricatures of a culture that is still living, which is often foolish representation of it entirely.
    • Wearing a bindi as a piece of jewelry or as a type of body modification is cultural appropriation. When a dominant culture takes from a marginalized group of people, that is otherwise sacred, becomes offensive. So when a white girl wears a bindi, she’s tampering with the meaning of the jewelry, which has been known to indicate marital status, a good luck symbol, to help increase concentration around the Indian regions.
    • Don’t wear saris. It definitely holds significance as a garment, as it represents “the sentry of a woman’s dignity.”
    • In regards to henna tattoos, here’s excellent commentary:
  2. Putting on a yukata, kimono, hakama, which is known as traditional Japanese clothing is cultural appropriation. It has been increasingly coming about, especially with such “fans” like Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku Girls, and even Lady Gaga. Trotting around with chopsticks in your hair and dressing up like a geisha exotifies Japanese women and does not accurately depict Japanese culture/people, so you probably shouldn’t do that.
  3. Native American appropriation, the biggest one of them all. For you hipsters out there, please take some notes.
    • War bonnets: They’re not worn by women, they’re worn by honored Plains Indian men, sometimes out to battle or for ceremonial purposes. They host a lot of spiritual significance, as it is supposed to protect the wearer in a time of battle. Determining on the amount of feathers one has on the war bonnet, or headdress, shows through brave deeds done, and were hard to obtain. Speaking generally, as not specific to certain Tribes (because there are over 200!), this is the general roundabout.
    • Face paint and singe boots/moccasins: Pretty self explanatory.
    • Basically, wearing anything related to Native American culture, especially if you’re white, comes across as being culturally insensitive, and is like a mockery set out to romanticize Natives. Believing that Natives are monolithic and uphold totems, dream catchers, cute turquoise jewelry, and sweat lodges is an incredibly inaccurate depiction, and one should never over-generalize.
  4. Latin American appropriation: Dia de Los Muertos sugar skull face paint, “Aztec” print, “tribal” print.
    •  Dia de los Muertos, as most of you know, is a celebrated tradition all throughout Mexico to celebrate the lives of those who have passed. The skulls have remained true to the Aztec tradition and have since then, been a ritual that Spanish conquistadors tried to eradicate and has been a custom of indigenous folks for the past 3,000 years. Traditional Mexican families pay homage to their lost loved ones in a huge fiesta that brings together prayers, food, and social gatherings. The skulls, henceforth, represented death and rebirth. Wearing the sugar skull face paint mocks this entire tradition.
    • “Aztec” print. Alright, this is getting me a little upset. In places like Urban Outfitters and Forever 21 there’s a trend that falls under the whole “Aztec” / “tribal” print thing. It’s quite neglectful that such industries tend to associate all things that have triangular and dotted designs to be “Aztec”, while a lot of different tribes are still out there today, practicing their patterns that are specific to THEIR tribe. There is a huge difference between Afrikaans tribal art and those of Meso-America. It is cultural appropriation, fyi.

It becomes bothersome to be aware of those in a position of power to continue this subtle oppression. Yes, wearing a “tribal” print dress may point out to be less appropriative because it is the fashion of today — but ask any indigenous individual how they feel about seeing their culture being worn on the backs of the people of power. Things like this are deep rooted in oppression, and for people of color, culture is all that we have left. It’s the one thing that hasn’t been taken from us. When you’re in a position of power, picking and choosing what seems “cute” from our culture to make you feel more cultured is the biggest spit to the face, as you’re mirroring the attempted extermination, assimilation, rape and pillaging of cultures like mine all around the world by those who felt their pale skin was superior, and our culture was savage like. Don’t be like them. Educate yourself, and don’t be oppressive.

My name is Elliott and I attend San Francisco State University. I am a queer Latin@, anti-oppression social activist and cultural studies teacher. I frequently discuss anti-blackness in Latin@ spaces, radical pedagogy, indigenous & Palestinian resistance, and Portlandia, from time to time. Aside from the politics, I enjoy the company of friends, family, strangers, and street cats. I am a self-proclaimed coffee slut, body modification enthusiast, and enjoy reading great books.

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