In the past few weeks the news world has lit up with a term which is unfamiliar to many: “cultural appropriation”. The phrase has become increasingly prominent recently due to the scandal where H&M replicated the dress of the Kurdish female soldiers currently battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has offended and angered many people supporting their pursuit for peace. However, this is not an isolated case and other forms of cultural misappropriation have been exposed, including the sale of Native American headdresses at England’s largest festival, Glastonbury. As an important and pressing issue, it is clear that the term “cultural appropriation” needs to be made more familiar in order to prevent the trivialisation and disrespect of people’s traditions and cultures from continuing.
So what is cultural appropriation?
The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, describes how it is difficult to give a definitive definition, but largely it is, “Taking the intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” An expansion on this is that cultural appropriation is the “unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, 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.”
Although it may seem simple, many large companies have recently struggled to avoid committing acts of cultural misappropriation in the items they produce.
At the forefront of the cultural appropriation awareness campaign is the story of the Kurdish female fighters’ jumpsuits being copied and trivialised in the Swedish company H&M’s Autumn/Winter collection released this month.
The jumpsuit is said to replicate the uniform of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group of male and female soldiers that are an armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). The group have taken a defensive position, fighting against groups who wish to bring Syrian Civil War to Kurdish inhabited areas, such as the strategic town of Kobani near the Syrian-Turkish border.
Whilst these YPG fighters risk their lives to protect their homes it is understandable that H&M’s crude replication of their uniforms would cause an uproar among the Kurdish community on many social media sites. It has been deemed “disgraceful” and “disrespectful” across Twitter and Facebook and has resulted in H&M apologising for the likeness in the outfits. However, the resemblance is passed off as a coincidence, Ida Ståhlnacke, H&M’s global press officer says, “We are truly sorry if we have offended anyone with this piece, this was of course never our intention. At H&M we want to offer the latest within fashion and trends and we continuously listen to our customer’s requests…The jumpsuit in question is made in a light and comfortable material and is a part of a larger collection consisting of many garments in khaki green, which also is one of the trendiest colours this season.”
Although this apology has been largely accepted, H&M’s carelessness has opened up a door exposing a much wider issue. Such examples of cultural appropriation keep reappearing in areas of industry, particularly fashion, and this needs to be dealt with.
The other recent example of cultural misappropriation that has reached the press is the selling native headdresses at Glastonbury. An online petition launched by Daniel Round on Change.org garnered only 65 signatures; however this was enough for the UK’s most famous music festival to restrict the sale of the headdresses at their 2015 event.
The native headdress has become a popular fashion item to wear at festivals across the UK. However, those who sport the item are not fully aware of the implications, particularly that it is an act of cultural misappropriation which can be seen as racist.
The Native American headdresses are historical, sacred and ceremonial pieces, sometimes called regalia, and to wear them as a form of “costume” is hugely offensive to the Native American communities. Moreover, there are hundreds of different Native American cultures and therefore wearing the “typical” costume of a Native American headdress is a generalisation and misrepresentation of many Native people.
It can be seen that “cultural appropriation” is a developing problem in the modern world, which can be recognised with its increased feature in the press. However, it is so easy to avoid. By simply taking the time to consider the cultural origins and importance of an item you are about to purchase you can avoid culturally misappropriating and help ensure people and their cultures are respected.
Photo Credits: Chris Beckett