The debate on cultural appropriation has become a hot topic over the years, especially in the era of “woke” social media. But why is it that we are only upset when our own cultureâ€™s on the line?
I grew up ambivalent about the obsession of the West with the East. At times it seemed unhealthy, laughable or even honorific. I eventually began to see it as a positive thing and appreciated the need of western tourists on a spiritual journey through eastern countries to “find themselves.” The world was becoming a global village, so perhaps this was not necessarily a bad thing. If someone wanted to practice yoga or feng shui, wasn’t it good for the originating culture that their centuries old practices were being exposed to the world at large?
Then came the age of social media and easy access to ideas from around the world. Examples of the way western nations were essentially appropriating other cultures were exposed for the entire world to see. If you type in “cultural appropriation news” in Google you’re bombarded with articles detailing the crimes against culture in almost every field: fashion, celebrity lifestyles, music, art and even the culinary world. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has recently been accused of appropriating a jerk rice dish from Jamaica without respect for its heritage.
Soon, I saw a major problem within my own society that fails to see anything wrong with blackface, white models wearing Native American headgear at Coachella, white singers pretending to be black, jokes targeted against features of Asian ethnicities and the list goes on. Unfortunately, most of us are only riled up by incidents of cultural appropriation when it’s our own at stake.
When Paul Smith designed what is essentially a Peshawari chappal in 2014 and called it “Robert,” priced at Â£300, we were outraged. There was no mention of Pakistan, let alone of the rich history behind the chappal. Similary, when Moschino’s Jeremy Scott sent models down the runway for his Resort 2017 Collection, all one could see was our native mirror work that’s popular on both sides of the border.
Forever 21’s kolhapuri style sandals (that in my opinion could have also been a rip off from various African cultures) being sold for 10 times the amount of their Pakistani counterparts infuriated us. Outrage everywhere.
We were all in agreement that it is acceptable for western design houses to use our cultural elements, as long as due credit is given. The biggest issue with appropriation is that those with historic privilege â€” those who have subjugated our culture and identities and continue to do so â€” profit off that very culture without any mention of the design origins.
On a side note, I must sayÂ that the outrage over howÂ international designers price those items is unfair. If a $3 kolhapuri being sold for $48 abroad upsets us, then why don’t we proudly wear our colours and culture when abroad, rather than blatantly assimilating? But that warrants another discussion.
Sadly, most people in Pakistan don’t bat an eye against cultural appropriation, as long as it does not affect our own. When Pakistani designers shoot fashion campaigns using African tribes as backdrops, or our photographers use blackface and Afros in shoots (cataloguing them as experimentation with form), we forget that we are guilty of appropriation ourselves.
We overlook our own racist attitudes towards other people of colour and hence we rarely stand up for other cultures being appropriated. “My culture is not your costume” is a line we rarely understand, until a gora wears a shalwar and calls it â€œAladdin pants.â€ Why is it that we forget to empathise with other cultures? What gives us the right to think of ourselves as superior to others, while clamouring for equality with the “whites?”
Could it be the inferiority complex that is embedded in our post-colonial society? We are all too happy to be appreciated by the “white man” as long as they give credit to us, but we very easily portray other cultures in a demeaning manner. Perhaps weâ€™re just indifferent when it comes to due diligence and research.
The fashion industry is uniquely poised in our country to educate the masses. With increasing internet penetration, especially among the clientele of fashion brands, it has become imperative that the industry becomes responsible.
Fashion and art are transcendental and should not be confined to cultural boundaries. But in a world that is trying to move on from the atrocities of colonialism and is still failing to end systemic racism, simply recognising the originating culture of inspiration and doing basic research can be steps in the right direction.