Have We Been Culturally Appropriating?

Wandering Seoul Column:

Prepare to immerse yourself into the historically beautiful, technologically advanced and remarkable culture of South Korea. CUB Magazine’s column ‘Wandering Seoul’, written by Ruby Punt, aims to dispense with overusing itineraries and reflect the extraordinary personal experience South Korea has to offer, whilst also challenging many western misconceptions about South Korea. All that’s left to say is 읽어 주셔서 감사합니다 .

In recent years the term ‘cultural appropriation’ has become more prevalent in the media. From ‘black-face parties’ to Native American Halloween costumes, it is a topic that is widely spoken about and condemned, yet many people – myself included – are likely to have culturally appropriated without realising it. So, where is the line? How do you know if you are culturally appropriating? 

According to Erich Matthes, assistant professor of philosophy at Wellesley College, “If you’re [not] wearing it as part of a cultural exploration or education, you should be hesitant”. For instance, if you were to visit one of Seoul’s many palaces dressed in a Hanbok I wouldn’t class this as cultural appreciation, as you would be dressing in this way to learn about South Korea’s royal history and to gain a deeper understanding of how they lived, via the clothing. Alternatively, if you were to go to a K-pop concert in a Hanbok it would be entirely inappropriate, because the two are unrelated and you would be making a misinformed assumption that all South Koreans wear traditional clothing. As Dr Mahawatte says, “Racism is reflected in the way that dress is understood”. 

The fashion industry is one of the worst culprits of appropriation, as they fail to acknowledge the history of clothing – and culture – they attempt to replicate. An example of this would be Victoria’s Secret 2010 fashion show. Titled ‘Wild Things’, the clothing was described as “‘inspired’ by tribal motifs”. Meanwhile, a more recent example includes Gucci’s “Indy Turban”. Sacred to the Sikh community, the turban is worn to “protect uncut hair”, as it is believed that hair is God’s gift. However, this was not the case for the Gucci model, instead the headscarf was worn as a fashion statement and the religious history behind the piece was completely ignored. Susan Scafidi acknowledges that these are common occurrences: “in fashion, cultural appropriation can play out in not only sexualized stereotypes ― dragon-lady dominatrices and eager-to-please geishas ― but also the elision of style elements from completely different cultures and the treatment of Asian models as interchangeable props”

Glory Ames, from White Earth Reservation, the largest Native American reservation in North Western Minnesota, explores the dangers of casual cultural appropriation in an interview with Washington Post stating, “Non-Natives can ‘pretend’ to be Native for one day of the year, and it’s all the ‘cute’ or ‘sexy’ parts of being Native, but there are so many people who can’t just put on or take off the costume, they have to live with all the other aspects of being born Native”. It is important to remember that this is not a costume, this is somebody’s life. Clothing not only reflects your character but also your experiences and traumas. By brazenly wearing these outfits you dismiss those that wear forced to wear – or to remove – these clothes. 

With all this in mind, I would like to look back and consider the times where I may have been culturally appropriating. I am writing these examples to show you that cultural appropriation comes in many subtle forms and to recognise that I am far from perfect. It is important to look back and acknowledge your mistakes for the growth of yourself and those around you. My first example is one that until recently I had not considered to be appropriation: wearing hair sticks. I found them to be convenient as you could tie your hair away without the use of a hairband; however, after visiting South East Asia, I came to realise that nobody actually wears them! They are just chopsticks – yes, the kind you use to eat with – that were appropriated into hairpieces. Another example would be wearing Henna, when I was younger I used to love playing with Henna and making my own tattoos but as time went on I began to understand that there was a cultural significance behind Mehendi tattooing, and that it was disrespectful to treat it like a toy. You have to ask yourself, if you are not gaining any kind of cultural understanding from dressing this way, then what is your motive?

CUB’s Ruby Punt is a third year comparative literature student, currently embedded in Seoul, South Korea. She is exceedingly sporty: regularly rock climbing, hiking and practicing pole fitness (with a spot of skiing on the side). She enjoys reading fiction and, despite her athletic disposition, has an ‘unhealthy’ Netflix addiction. 

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