Updated: Oct 24, 2020
By Melissa del Carmen Gomez
Leanne Chan/BARE Magazine
Cultural appropriation is often discussed on social media. The Jenners and Kardashians appropriating box braids, models in headdresses, and the latest fox eye trend taking a storm and creating a backlash from the Asian community. Cultural appropriation isn’t new. But some are trying to justify their actions with the term cultural appreciation. Is there a line that must be drawn between the two?
According to Dictionary.com, cultural appropriation is “the adoption or co-opting, usually without acknowledgment, of cultural identity markers associated with or originating in minority communities by people or communities with relatively privileged status.” Let’s look into the fox eye trend in depth. The fox eye trend is a pose where models pull their eyes back to make them appear slanted. A pose that is widely viewed in a simplistic lens has gone so far where some influencers have even experienced plastic surgery to have their eyes and brows appear slanted. These photos are all over Youtube, TikTok, and Instagram, in which most of them are performed by Caucasian models and influencers. This trend, however, is harmful to Asians. Marisa Charoensri, who is an environmentalist and studies environmental and health policies, says, “As an Asian-American, I personally find the ‘fox eye’ trend insensitive and problematic. While I understand it may not have originated from a place of ill intent, it doesn’t excuse the ignorance involved here. I grew up feeling like an ugly duckling and believing my features weren’t beautiful. People used to mock mine and yell out 'ching chang chong,' and it became so normalized that I didn’t find it funny. It made me rather insecure. You can’t just turn something us Asians have been ridiculed over for pretty much our whole lives into a beauty trend or selfie pose.”
Other instances of cultural appropriation can be seen at Coachella, an annual music festival held in Indo, California. It is popular and has a high attendance rate with an incredible music line up, celebrities posing at the event for Instagram, and the bold fashion that makes the music festival feel more like a red carpet event. However, Coachella attendees can be seen in boho-chic clothing, wearing accessories that are actually sacred to another culture. At the event, you see women wearing bindis. In India, bindis are worn by women in many different religious and cultural communities. It is believed that the bindi is linked to the third eye or ajna chakra which holds great wisdom and power. However, there are non-Indian women at these music festivals wearing sparkly bindis and showing off their “third eye” but having no idea what the bindi actually means. Headdresses have also become popular to wear at music festivals like Coachella. Non-Native peoples wearing headdresses at a music festival removes the cultural significance of the headdress, which is used in ceremonial occasions. Non-Natives wearing the headdress and claiming it as their own takes away not only it’s meaning but contributes to the erasure of Indigenous culture in the United States. White people can wear a headdress to Coachella, but back in 2018, when Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chairman JoDe Goudy tried to enter the Supreme Court, he was not allowed to do so due to wearing traditional regalia and was forced to submit to wearing Western-style clothing. There is a privilege these white people have in wearing BIPOC traditional clothing as if it’s a costume or cute accessory and yet they remain ignorant while cultural erasure and assimilation continues to happen.
But what is cultural appreciation then? In Japan, there is a Chicano subculture rising. Chicano is an “identifier for people of Mexican descent born in the United States. The term came into popular use by Mexican Americans as a symbol of pride during the Chicano Movement of the 1960s.” Walter Thompson-Hernandez traveled from the United States to Japan to learn more from this community and to see if this was an example of cultural appropriation or appreciation. When he got to Japan and spoke with the Japanese who were taking part in Chicano culture, he was shocked. “They are in constant communication with Los Angeles lowrider communities. To me, it was more of a form of cultural exchange. Although many people I met in the scene were born and raised in Japan, they pride themselves on appreciating lowrider culture.” They were not profiting of Chicano culture, nor mocking it, and most importantly they had an understanding of the culture. It is more than a “fashion trend” but a way of life and the Japanese who take a part in Chicano culture are respectful and are rooted in the similarities between both Japanese/Latinx cultures and family values. Vivian Wang, a writer for Latinx, says, “I admire the way Japan is adopting and celebrating Latinx culture: not only admiring the styles and practices of being a Chicano but taking the time to fully understand how the culture works too. Japan is forging a fusion that follows cultural practices in a manner that is respectful and at the same time, fun."
This is where the line gets drawn. Cultural appropriation takes away the meaning of culture and in a way objectifies culture into a stereotype. Kylie Jenner can wear box braids but when a Black woman wears box braids, there is institutional racism and barriers encouraging her to wear her hair however she wants. Cultural appreciation is where people take time to learn and there is an exchange of culture. Cultural appreciation is all about listening, not plagiarizing, and honoring where a piece of clothing comes from or honoring a community as a whole. Cultural appreciation is also about amplifying the voices of different BIPOC communities and it’s not done for personal gain or money.
While I agree equality is important and we can share our cultures, we have to remind ourselves of the world we live in and the systematic oppression that exists. Eurocentric beauty ideals, racial inequality, and forced assimilation are in the roots of the United States of America. Cultural appropriation vs appreciation can be hard to understand, but ignorance is not the answer. We have to ask ourselves the right questions and learn from one another. So before you put on an article of clothing or try the next “trend” on social media, think about where it comes from and if it’s the right thing to do.
Written by writer Melissa del Carmen Gomez