Be appropriate...don't appropriate
I am 18; perched on a wooden stool overlooking the Plaza de Armas in Cusco. I turn back to my hot chocolate (I’m in the chocolate museum.. naturally), when I notice someone taking a photo of me out of my periphery. He wasn’t particularly subtle about it. He had a large SLR camera and possibly a tripod. I kept sipping my chocolate trying not to break the candid shot. His camera snapped the little white girl swamped by an enormous orange, red and yellow ceremonial style poncho, “candidly” sipping her hot chocolate.
Meanwhile the bustle of Cusco whirled beneath us, peppered with chaos, hippy tourists and indigenous children dressed in their best skirts posing for photos. A tang of inequality and privilege lay masked beneath the magic of the mountain village.
Years later when I look back at that photograph, I have a mix of emotions. Fond memories of the photographer and a love for the random encounters that travel brings. But now, with the gift of hindsight, it reeks of cultural appropriation. The kind that was pointed out to me when I returned to the Plaza de Armas 4 years later.
Sitting on a bench in the plaza, I started talking with an old Cusceno man. He told me with disgust how the tourists had overrun this beautiful town and pushed the local people out. He explained how everything about his sacred culture was being capitalised upon by eclectically dressed gringos. He told me how his mother (earth) was being trampled upon by tourists every day, how his culture was disintegrating, and his people were being pushed further away. His story gave me uncomfortable flashbacks to the 18-year-old girl sitting in her oversized poncho.
Around this time, stories had been popping up in the media about festival goers in the US wearing the Native American headdresses as “costume.” This was a real red flag for cultural appropriation and upon reading those articles I surely shook my head in disappointment at those people. Listening to this man in Cusco square brought me the uncomfortable realisation that I had been one of those people and led me to question how many other cultural appropriation faux pas’ I had made along my travels.
I am 20 years old; roaming, or rather bustling, through the streets of New Delhi, India. I am with my friend who is another 20-year-old white Australian lady. Between the two of us, we do not have even a semblance of a plan past the first night’s accommodation. The leering of large groups of Indian men greeted us with as much furore as the incessant honking of New Deli traffic. We had been advised to wear a fake wedding ring and to casually incorporate a fake husband into our standardised story. A Nepalese man called Om told us that wearing the red bindi in the centre of the forehead meant “married.”
So, in an attempt to fit in, we started wearing the red bindi beneath our pashmina scarves. We received strange looks from the women and possibly attracted even more curious stares from the men. They would ask us if we knew what it meant, we said, "of course,”and inserted our pre-rehearsed story about our fake husband in Australia.
Coming back to Australia, the yoga boom and activewear trend had just skyrocketed. So I too had the ‘boho chic’ look. Walking around the streets of Bondi I would see the occasional boho fashionista adorned with a sparkly bindi on her third eye. And I will admit to having tried it on the occasion. Later, I would meet one of my closest friends, who so happened to be born in Punjab. She is also a designer and understands the ins and outs of fashion vs appropriation. When I heard her perspectives on the random trending of bindis in western fashion, the uncomfortable feeling hit me again. It was undoubtedly another form of cultural appropriation. The type that uses privilege to assume a kind of ownership over cultural artefacts, behaviours or products, without having any real understanding or connection to them. It's a way of capitalising or tokenizing one part of a culture for the benefit or amusement of someone who is not of that culture, whilst simultaneously discriminating or denigrating other parts of that same culture to “second best.”
I am 22. I am walking out of the hairdressing salon somewhere in the south of Bogota. In the time it had taken the hairdresser to insert tonnes of extensions and box braid my wispy, fine hair, the daylight had shrugged away and the already very dodgy street appeared like something out of a bad TV series. I put my hood up and walked as fast as I could without running towards the main street. I hadn't even had time to scope out my new hair. But this was the third time I had braided my hair so I was almost used to the extra weight pulling on my neck.
I squeezed onto the transmilenio (the Colombian bus system) and took off my hood. I didn’t need a mirror. The perplexed gazes of the other commuters was enough. This time I felt it straight away. That same uncomfortable feeling that I had speaking to the Cusceno man hit me right in the gut on my way home that night. I had braided my hair for the first time in Senegal, with the family I was staying with, and I lasted all of 3 days with the insane weight of the hair. The second time, in Sydney, my friends had done it for me, and it had helped with my dancing. My costumes fitted better and I felt more ‘me’ somehow.
This time was different. I did it because I wanted a different look. I wanted to feel more me again. But somehow it didn't work this time. It made me feel uncomfortable. One Afro-Colombian lady actually stopped me on the street and told me how much she liked my hair, but there was still something wrong. In the hair salon, there had been a few other customers, all of whom were from Chocó (a remote department of Colombia with strong Afro-descendiente roots), and all of them wanting to change their natural hair. None of them wanted braids. They were all eyeing off a silky smooth straight black wig piece that had just come in.
Later in the year, I visited Chocó and saw the difference between Afro hair in the city versus in Chocó. In Chocó, the people took enormous pride in their hair. Each child had different braids, with their own design and flavour. Many of the adults wore braids or natural hair compared to Bogota where the majority of Afro-Colombians seemed to opt for the straightened or long,weave look.
As luck would have it I soon met another incredible woman, who happens to be the author of Echoes of the Struggle. We had some great discussions about cultural appropriation and in specific black hair and hair braiding. Her non-judgemental, yet informative and honest way of discussing these issues again filled me with that uncomfortable feeling of being an appropriator. But this time, I feel like the penny really dropped. I took my braids out. And I have no desire to put them back in. I still enjoy dressing creatively and I love colours. But now I check myself for appropriation. I check in with my “look” to make sure I’m not taking from anybody in order to achieve something for myself.
I am 24. I still love to travel and dress and dance in a certain way, and I dare say I’m just about to meet someone who will pull me up on a new layer of appropriation or privileged I can still not see. But I do feel like I can make the distinction between appreciation and appropriation. It's a feeling. Appropriation leaves you with the sense of entitlement, ignorance or shame. Appreciation leaves you with a buzz, a sense of connection and mutual interaction where both people learn and share with one another. Appreciation is based on respect. Appropriation is based on entitlement or lack of awareness.
The key to being an appreciator and not an appropriator lies in self awareness and in listening. Educate yourself. Be open to discussions with people from every walk of life. Be prepared to change if you are called up on your appropriation and privilege. Call others up on it when you can. Appreciate culture in a respectful and genuine way. Give credit where credit is due. And call a spade a spade.
If you happen upon something new which looks or feels amazing, chances are it has been around for a while. If it looks like something “exotic” or “cultural,” chances are it was not invented by new age white hippies of the 21st century. Look beyond where you find something, and recognise its real roots and context.
Check your privilege. Just because box braiding may be acceptable or trendy now, remember that historically and presently many people of color could be refused work for wearing their natural or braided hair. While a white model wearing a bindi may be perceived as elegant and desirable, an Indian woman wearing a bindi in a western context may be categorised as foreign and unrelatable. Cultures are sacred and complex. Regardless of your culture, think twice before tokenizing something that is someone’s sacred identity. If you are allowed the opportunity to share and interact with other cultures, be an appreciator not an appropriator.
To keep up with Geneviève, follow her blog at www.dancingchange.com and like her Facebook page here.