On Oct. 17, a “First-Nations-inspired” collection is showcased at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts boutique. Items featured include key fobs in the shape of caricatures of Aboriginal girls, and a pillow with a racist cartoon depiction of a Native person. These articles form part of Inukt, a fashion brand created by (non-Native) Canadian designer Nathalie Benarroch. Her response to Indigenous groups’ outrage? “I don’t understand all this hatred. You’ve always got this idea that everything that’s made in Paris is glamorous, but being an art director, I know it’s just a question of branding. Canada can also be just as glamorous.”
Meanwhile, south of the border Miley Cyrus is receiving an onslaught of criticism for her infamous VMA performance that included twerking and slapping a black woman’s butt onstage. A very valid argument risks being drowned out by the louder, more obnoxious voices engaged in slut-shaming. Anne Theriault, in an article for Huffpost Music, points out what most people failed to see: “She, a wealthy white woman, is taking elements from black culture in order to achieve a specific image. Her status as a member of a traditionally oppressive race and class means that she is able to pick and choose what parts of black culture she wants to embrace without having to deal with the racism and racialization that black women live with every day,” she writes.
Elsewhere in the United States, Lady Gaga is making waves with her use of “#burqaswag”. Her loyal little monsters lapped up this latest Gaga trend, and many posted pictures of themselves posing in makeshift veils with #burqaswag in the caption. James Harris, an editor at Complex Times, wrote of the phenomenon: “Lady Gaga is in a position of privilege where she can choose when and where to don something that holds so much weight in a culture and religion that she is not a part of.”
What Benarroch, Cyrus and Gaga did is cultural appropriation, and it’s not OK. Cultures are being exchanged, ideas, traditions, fashions are all becoming more and more intermingled within the fabric of our societies. Yet will all the beauty and innovations that come from the sharing of cultures, sometimes it’s hard to find the balance between appreciating someone’s culture and appropriating it. The line is a difficult one to find, but it’s imperative to do so.
Why did Benarroch feel free to claim Inuit culture as Canadian? And why did she feel that an apology was not required after she received widespread criticism from various Aboriginal groups? For that matter, why did Miley Cyrus also refuse to apologize after being criticized for using a black woman as a prop? Why does Lady Gaga feel that it’s appropriate to use the term “burqa swag” and to wear her renditions of burqas, niqabs and hijabs?
Dr. Naveen Joshi, a Humber Professor and popular culture expert, believes the answer to those questions stems from ignorance. “I think that’s a lack of knowledge. They don’t actually understand where that came from and why they would be offended,” he said. For him, there are two types of cultural appropriators: “The first is people that are appropriating and don’t have any idea what they’re doing. So your blackface. The second is when people are appropriating and they’re saying they’re giving homage to these people.”
When asked about Miley Cyrus’s performance, Joshi laughed and responded, “I don’t think it’s authentic whatsoever … When she didn’t know who Jay-Z was, the writing was on the wall.”
For Dr. Handel Wright, a University of British Columbia Professor of cultural studies, the problem with Cyrus’ performance is her use of black culture for shock value. “Why is it that it’s black culture that someone uses as something that will shock others? So Miley Cyrus is trying to shed her little girl image. So for her twerking is the same as lighting up a joint, it’s to shock,” he said. “It’s the appropriation of somebody else’s culture in order to shock, that I find offensive,” continued Wright, who is the Director of the Centre for Culture, Identity and Education at UBC.
Another point Wright discussed is just how intertwined cultures are, which makes cultural appropriation a very complex issue. “The history of what is now called twerking. For me I see elements in what is being called twerking as not even an African American form of dance, but as something that is a version of what people do in the Caribbean with reggae and calypso et cetera and even that can be historicized further back,” Wright said. “In my own country and in the Gambia there are forms of Gombey that kind of operate like that.”
One clear-cut aspect of cultural appropriation is the fact that exploitation of other cultures is always a big no-no. Joshi discussed the issue of white people taking parts of black culture and making it way more popular by virtue of them being white. “If you look at Chuck Berry and the fact that he ended up suing the Beach Boys because they took his tune, his beat, his rhythm and merely sang some surf song above that and called it Surfing in the U.S.A… He couldn’t make that much money out of that type of song, but when somebody white takes it up, then it becomes ‘oh this is very big, this is a wonderful beat’,” he said. “So if you’re appropriating because you’re appreciating that’s one thing, but if you’re appropriating because you’re going to make money out of it then it becomes a force of exploitation and becomes very problematic.”
Power differentials between cultures also have to be acknowledged. “When it’s somebody who is richer stealing the culture of somebody who is poorer, then appropriation becomes a little bit more problematic,” said Wright. “When it’s a culture that … projects itself as superior taking up the culture of another that … has been cast in an inferior light, then this becomes problematic.”
In Canada, Benarroch’s Inukt line is just one of many instances of white people appropriating Indigenous cultures. There’s always that one sadly misguided soul at any given costume party dressed as an “Indian”. As if dressing up as the stereotype of an incredibly vast number of different nations and peoples spanning an entire hemisphere makes any sort of sense. For shame. There are many reasons why this is problematic, the first being the wearing of Indigenous headdresses.
Prof. Daniel Justice, a UBC Associate Professor of First Nations Studies and a member of the Cherokee Nation, explains why non-Native people wearing Native headdresses is cultural appropriation of the worst kind.
“Headdresses are very culturally specific, they’re not for all people and they show a particular level of honor and dignity and respect that people in those communities have for their peers where those headdresses are used,” he says. “So they’re not just a secular piece of paraphernalia, there’s a lot of sacred attached to it. So when you take something that’s really respected and then start marketing it as this really almost clownish piece of costume, it’s innately disrespectful because it’s taken out of its proper context.” Justice, who is also Canada Research Chair of Indigenous Literature and Expressive Culture, adds, “It would be like for people who are Catholic, it would be like taking the Pope and turning him into a clown. That would be disrespectful.”
As Justice mentioned, headdresses are not used in all Native communities. When someone dresses up as a stereotype of a Native person, they are disregarding the fact that there are many different Aboriginal cultures. Benarroch’s line is problematic on this front as well. In a bold move of willful ignorance, Benarroch chose the name Inukt for her “First Nations-inspired” line. Inuk is the singular term for Inuit, who are not First Nations. Her careless choice of that name amalgamates various nations, peoples and cultures with little or nothing to do with one another. The only association these two cultures have with one another is their colonial heritage of settler intrusions.
Professor Jean-Paul Restoule, an Aboriginal Studies and Education Associate Professor at the University of Toronto and a member of the Dokis First Nation, talked with his class about cultural appropriation and appreciation, and how to find the line between the two. “We came to the idea that if there is anyone that is offended or hurt or upset by it, then you’ve probably crossed the line,” he said. Restoule agrees with Joshi that ignorance is a key player in cultural appropriation. “The lack of education plays a huge role,” he said. “I think in the minds of teachers and students that I have, they certainly think that there’s not enough coverage of Aboriginal histories, peoples, issues, and current events, and that’s one of the reasons we see these kinds of things happening.”
Justice discussed some ways to borrow from Native cultures without crossing that line. “Let’s say you’re in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and you buy Navajo jewelry that is sold to be jewelry that folks wear, if you actually really appreciate the community then that’s fine, but if you cover yourself with this material and then try to present yourself as having authority to speak on Native issues because you have appreciation, I think that’s crossed the line,” he said.
Restoule and his class also discussed appropriate ways to borrow from Native cultures. “We came down to, is there some kind of reciprocity, is there a giving back to the community that comes with you benefiting from you wearing the clothing or benefiting from having access to the story? Did you give something back in return, and is this exchange somewhat equal?” he said.
Apparently no one told Lady Gaga that using a religious piece of clothing and turning it into a sexual, exotic item doesn’t qualify as reciprocity, and doesn’t benefit the Muslim community in any way, shape or form.
Arwa Mahdawi, a regular commentator for the Guardian, discussed the use of the word “burqa” as a blanket term for all Muslim veils. “It’s one of the things that causes offence the most,” she said. Mahdawi, whose father is Muslim, added, “When Muslim women use it as a fashion trend, it’s fine, it’s when non-Muslims do it that it starts being a big problem.” She pointed out, “This should be common sense, someone’s religious heritage, just don’t play around with it.”
Understanding the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is important if for no other reason than because it brings harm to people, plain and simple. Shelley Charles, Humber College’s Native elder, discussed how she felt when people appropriate Native stories and cultures. “It kind of makes me feel like we’re continuing to be robbed of things that are very sacred and special to us,” she said. “But then on another part I feel sorry for people who think they lack the originality and need to take from others for themselves.” Joshi, who is of South Asian descent, also talked about feeling offended, especially at Halloween when he sees people dressed as Indians. “My life isn’t a costume,” he said.
When looking at cultures and the role that ignorance plays in cultural appropriation, Joshi said it simply: “The world is bigger than you.” That means educating yourself about other cultures is imperative, especially in this digital age where everything is shared in an instant. As Justice put it, “Educate yourself. Start reading about stereotypes, start reading about cultural studies. Ignorance is no excuse.”