Respect vs misappropriation: How (not) to do it
It started with a discussion about colour and privilege.
A dear friend and I caught up over coffee and got to talking about white privilege, growing up in Western society, and the recent groundswell of discussion around acknowledging people of colour. Living in Vancouver my entire life, speaking English — which I have been complimented on a few times by people of colour (POC) — and having middle-class Filipino-Canadian friends, I never identified as a “person of colour” nor saw that as a being a disadvantage in any way, until the last year or so when more media started to make it a topic of conversation.
Cultural (mis)appropriation is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another, typically more dominant people or society. I emphasized unacknowledged because in my opinion, I don’t think it’s wrong to wear a item of clothing of another culture, so long as you have permission to do so from someone of that culture. In this day and age, it’s not that hard to ask for permission or consult with someone on whether you’re doing it respectfully. Some may see this request as a nuisance, but if not done, it can be damaging and insulting.
This discussion goes beyond this blog, and I am far from an expert to lead it, but what I do know is that there is a huge amount of ignorance around this topic, and you’ll see that I have committed misappropriation more than once in my adult life. Now that we are just getting comfortable talking about these uncomfortable topics (there’s a pretty damn good Wikipedia entry on this), I thought it’d be fun to have a simple do & do not list so that we can start pointing out how and where this occurs in our own lives.
I’d love if you’d comment on your thoughts — am I missing any examples, or do you disagree with any of them? LMK!
Clothing, hair, & cosmetics
Wear aboriginal clothing or jewellery if it was gifted, made or created by someone of aboriginal descent, the maker had permission from someone of aboriginal descent, or it was sold in a place where the authenticity can be verified. Tourist destinations like art galleries and hotel gift shops are safe bets, but it’s always good to ask before you buy.
Photo: Chris Randle
This photo is of staff and community members of the Talking Stick Festival, who I worked with in 2018. They were gifted with traditional blankets by the Founder of the festival at a beautiful ceremony.
Wear any elements of aboriginal regalia or traditional dress without permission, or use them as a costume.
Photo: Getty Images
Karlie Kloss modelled this at a Victoria Secret Fashion Show in 2017. Do not do.
Photo: Designer Lesley Hampton
Wear ANY indigenous type of costume for Hallowe’en, even if Disney itself is selling it.
Wear a turban if you belong to the Sikh religion.
This is the leader of the NDP Party of Canada, Jagmeet Singh. He wears a turban because it’s a part of the religion he practices and NO ONE should tell him not to wear it.
Wear a turban if you are not of the Sikh religion or do not have permission from someone of the religion to wear one.
Photo: Rex Features, The Independent
In 2018, Gucci faced backlash for not only putting turbans on their models at their Fall fashion show, but also selling it for $790 earlier this year. Do not do.
Wear cultural items with permission.
This photo is of yours truly in 2007, when I attended a cultural festival in Osaka, Japan. My friend Yuriko helped me to purchase my yukata and it was super fun to wear because EVERYONE ELSE was wearing one too… Apparently a child on the metro said I looked kawaii (cute).
Wear wear another culture’s traditional dress without permission, or without respect to that culture, even if you are a part of it. (DNA testing has become very popular these days, and finding out you are a certain ethnicity does not come with privileges of that culture.)
Photo: IMDB.com, from music video for “Chun-Li”
This one is tricky as some people online say that Nicki Minaj‘s South Asian heritage, use of Asian dancers, and the fact that the song was based on a video game character frees her of cultural misappropriation. In my opinion, the blending of Chinese and Japanese cultural dress and the fact that there’s no info online about any intentionally positive tributes to Asian heritage in her music video or performances leads me to believe that this was an ignorant choice. There are so many ways to be creative without using elements of another culture without permission, so IMO, do not do.
Another example of wearing cultural dress with permission. This is my hubby in the Filipino barong, which is an embroidered, thin blouse worn over a t-shirt or tank top.
Photo credit: Tomasz Wagner Photo & Film
Before our wedding, we got the barongs made by a Filipino tailor in East Van. If he didn’t approve of making them, we definitely wouldn’t have gone through with it. It’s one of the few Filipino elements we incorporated into our wedding, and for summertime, it made the groomsmen a lot more comfy than they would have been in a tux.
Another example of wearing without permission:
Photo: Keziah Daum
Last year, this poor American 18 year-old woman got absolutely slaughtered online for wearing the qipao, a Chinese cultural dress, to her high school prom. She isn’t Chinese nor did she have permission from someone who is. I believe her when she said she didn’t mean any offense by it, and she wore it respectfully (unlike the Nicki Minaj example above, IMO). Unfortunately we live in a world where you’re being watched and judged by your actions online, so parents really need to educate their children about this. I wore the traditional Chinese shirt to work and other events in the 2000’s, and never got called out for it, but should have!
Dress culturally if it’s appropriate, like if you’re attending an Indian wedding.
Photo: Sony Pictures
I couldn’t find a better example, but here’s Julia Roberts, playing Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert in the movie of the same title. She’s attending a wedding in India, so she gets to wear a sari.
Wear cultural cosmetics if you’re not attending an event of that culture. And no, Coachella does not make it okay.
Photo: Splashnews/Pacific Coast News
Celebs Kendall Jenner and Selena Gomez have both been called out for wearing the bindi at Coachella. The bindi is a significant element of the Hindu religion, signifying a married woman, wisdom in the sixth chakra, the third eye, and other cool spiritual meanings. You know that you’ve done something wrong when a hashtag like #reclaimthebindi pops up online because of something you wore… so do not do unless you are a part of that religion.
Wear your hair as you normally would in your everyday life.
Greta Thunberg always wear her hair like this, not because it’s cool or she’s trying to mimic another culture that wears braids.
Wear a hairstyle that mimics or even nods at the way another culture would wear it, unless you have permission.
Again, avoid the attempt at a Hallowe’en costume like this Jamaican Rastafarian hat and wig with dreadlocks. It’s not real, and it’s insulting to people of that culture. Do not do.
Create a logo for your organization that’s neutral and does not involve another cultural group.
Bears are pretty neutral and they happen to live in the Lower Mainland of Vancouver, so I thought it was a great choice for our NBA team.
Make up a mascot like Chief Wahoo to represent your organization. Especially not without permission from aboriginal peoples.
The Cleveland Indians is still the name of the baseball team, but Chief Wahoo is no more. Also, know that rebrands are expensive.
Make or use a dream catcher if you are aboriginal or have been taught how to make or use one by someone aboriginal.
Photo: Sgt Kayla White
This photo is of Airman 1st Class Phillip E. Rock, a Native American, weaving a dream catcher.
Buy a dream catcher and use it decoratively.
Photo: Britney Gill
This photo is of a yoga studio in B.C. I don’t want to out them, but I have stared at this dream catcher on the wall wondering whether it was appropriate and made or given by someone indigenous. Maybe someone will recognize it and tell me…?
Get indigenous tattoos if they are of your cultural ethnicity and you know their meaning, or you have permission from an artist of that group to wear one.
Not only is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson Samoan, but there are cultural meanings to each of his tattoos and you can find out what they are at the link above.
When I was digging into my mother’s Filipino Waray ancestry, I discovered the history of body tattoos in the Philippines and am super stoked to get a traditional Filipino tattoo someday, but it’s important to find the right artist and make sure the symbols are appropriate in meaning. It’s common for people to get things tattooed on them that were meant for other genders or ancestral tribes, and according to Filipino tradition, that can mean rejection in the afterlife. So we must DEFINITELY do our earthly tattoo homework!
Get a cultural tattoo if you do not belong to that group or do not have permission from an artist belonging to that group.
Photo: Glenn Francis
Mike Tyson‘s tattoo isn’t cultural misappropriation because the artist, S. Victor Whitmill, isn’t of a specific cultural descent… he just created a tribal-looking tattoo for Tyson. I just used this as an example because it’s super tacky and couldn’t find a good example of an indigenous or traditional script tattoo gone wrong…Tyson’s pretty happy with it, but the artist ended up suing Warner Brothers (and settling) for use of the tattoo in Hangover 2. Greed ruins everything.
Own or use a statue or artwork of the Buddha if you are Buddhist or have permission from someone who is Buddhist to do so.
Like Jesus’s face and the cross/crucifix in the Christian religion, the Buddha was a real religious figure whose image has made its way into the mainstream. Even though the portrayals are mostly positive, it makes sense that we shouldn’t be wearing or decorating the Buddha’s face unless we’re Buddhist, the same way you wouldn’t wear a rosary or crucifix as a necklace…most Christians don’t do that.
Use an image of the Buddha in your marketing.
I know it’s tempting. The Buddha’s such a chill, happy, sometimes chubby dude. But you just can’t.
Same thing goes for Tibetan singing bowls, and the word “Zen.” I didn’t realize that the true definition of the word was the Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism, which values meditation and intuition – not the vibe of peace that we now associate with it. You can’t even find the lower case “zen” in the dictionary!
Ceremonies & practices
Say a proper land acknowledgement at the start of an event.
Insult members of another cultural group. Especially not publicly.
Don’t do it even if they are protesting at your event. Especially if you are the leader of a country. And when people are video taping.
Just don’t do it, ever.
Take part in a smudging ceremony or practice if you are aboriginal, it is being administered by someone who is, or you have been taught how to do one by someone of that descent.
Smudging with sage or other herbs is an important spiritual ceremony which has unfortunately been misused in mainstream culture. I’ve taken part in two “ceremonies” by people who were not indigenous, and I just didn’t know any better. But now you do, so you can tell others that this isn’t just something you do to “feel cleansed” or make your house smell good.
Buy a sage stick, “smudging kit,” or something similar that is mass marketed.
Anthropologie took their product down when they got outed, but Urban Outfitters still sells this one.
Teach yoga if you were certified by a reputable organization, and use sanskrit if you know the meaning of the words you are saying.
Photo: Hari Om Yoga Vidya School
I’ve participated in some chants after yoga class, and IMO, it’s not easy to say and there’s a reason for that. Don’t say what you don’t know mean!
Yoga is a practice that has been highly modified to accommodate westerners. It’s actually not just an exercise, but a set of physical, mental, and spiritual practices stemming from the Hindu tradition in India, dating back as far as 3,000 years. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the physical practice, but we do have to be careful about throwing around the definition of yoga.
When I learned Transcendental Meditation (TM) in 2014, my teacher (not Indian) did a beautiful ceremony that required us to bring fruit, flowers, and a white cloth. She lit incense and chanted in sanskrit. I thought it was odd at first because what was taught to us as a secular practice seemed to have some religious undertones, but it makes sense knowing that the origin of TM and the mantras we receive is from the Vedic tradition, and there’s been a lot of effort to preserve it.
Dress, act, or talk like an Eastern teacher or guru, or use sanskrit if you do not know what you’re saying.
This is a poster for the movie Kumare. I highly recommend it (it’s up on YouTube). It’s about a man who dresses up, talks, and starts teaching people as if he’s a guru and he isn’t. It shows how easily people can be manipulated by frauds. So don’t use sanskrit for the sake of it as it’s insulting to those who use it properly, and you may be teaching things that are inaccurate.
Same goes for modern practices of Ayurveda, a system of medicine originating in India. LOTS of modern gurus are popping up – be aware of who is teaching them and what they claim to be teaching!
Visit a sweat lodge if you have a meaningful reason for doing so, and if the practices are performed by an individual or (ideally) group of indigenous people who know how to monitor those participating.
Photo: Top of the World Ranch
This is a real treatment centre in Fort Steele, B.C. Use resources like Indigenous Tourism BC or good ol’ Google research to find sweat lodges (or any type of cultural destination) to ensure their safety and authenticity before you go.
Lead or participate in sweat lodges or similar cultural practices — especially ones that involve your physical health — if you are not aboriginal, or the ceremonies are not done by people of that descent.
Photo: Angel Valley Retreat Center
This is the location where leadership and performance coach James Arthur Ray led a retreat in a sweat lodge in 2009, resulting in the deaths of three people and injury of 18 others. He was sentenced to two years in prison. I’m sure the centre is still a fine destination, but at the time I imagine the tragic event must have affected them negatively.
Music, speech, and media
Use media of another culture with permission.
The Wu-Tang Clan is a great example of a group that pays artistic tribute to Chinese culture but they are in no way dressing up or pretending to be a part of it. RZA (who produced most of the group’s music) grew up watching kung fu movies and saw similarities in black culture. “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” is a staple of my high school years and is probably seen as one of the most iconic hip hop albums.
Mimic or use sound or music of another culture, unless you are a part of it or have permission from that culture to use it.
While the “Survivor” theme song isn’t an example of cultural misappropriation because it was made to sound “tribal” rather than mimic any particular culture, the show itself is problematic. I admit, I was a fan of the first few seasons, but the music, sound, brand, “tribe” names, set dec, and locations — with the cast of (mostly white) American contestants playing games and scheming each other for money — just doesn’t compliment other cultures in a respectable way.
Talk about cultural experiences in artistic form if they are yours or true to your experience.
Female rapper Da Brat can talk about representing the ghetto because that’s true to her experience growing up on the west side of Chicago:
“It’s the ghetto west bitch and I’m so so def
Nigga that’s my click
Nigga that’s who I rolls with
And we kicks nothing but the fat shit”
Use lyrics that are not true to your cultural experience, especially if they point to a negative aspect of another culture.
So…I don’t really need to tell you what’s wrong with Iggy Azalea (a white woman)’s lyrics:
“Tire marks, tire marks, finish line with the fire marks
When the relay starts I’m a runaway slave-master”
Just do not do.
Another example of when it’s okay to use a cultural term, even a derogatory one.
Jay-Z can use the word n*gger or n*gga in his lyrics because he is of African descent.
Use or even play on a cultural term, if you are not of that culture or do not have permission of those members to do so.
Indonesian rapper Rich Brian‘s original stage name was “Rich Chigga” but he changed it, for obvious reasons. Now he can rep Asian rap with respect!
Hire a person of a cultural group to play a character of that group in media.
Liu Yifei was cast as the live action hero for Disney’s Mulan, releasing in March 2020.
Cast actors in media who are not of that character’s cultural group, especially if the option is available to cast someone who is.
Perhaps if a Japanese woman was cast in the lead role for Ghost in the Shell, the movie may not have been as widely seen, but that doesn’t make the decision to hire Scarlett Johansson any more right.
Another example of hiring someone who belongs to a cultural group the character also belongs to.
Laverne Cox, a transgendered actor, is great as Sophie Burset in “Orange is the New Black.”
Another example where an A-list cis-gendered actor was chosen over the option to hire a transgendered actor.
Photo: Anne Marie Fox, Focus Features
Jared Leto was cast as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, for which he won an Oscar. At least he dedicated his win to those facing injustice and with AIDS.
Learn about culturally derived-words and cultures by reading books, consuming media produced by people of the culture, and visiting cultural centres. Having a friend of a certain ethnicity is not enough. Last year, Bob Joseph’s 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality was a game changer and I think it should be mandatory reading in high school. Simon Moya-Smith published this article in VICE last year on “100 Ways to Support–Not Appropriate From–Native People.” (Thanks Susan for sharing!) The Internet is a good tool, people.
Use these offensive terms & phrases:
- Circle the wagon
- Indian giver
- Off the reservation
- Peace pipe
- Spirit animal
- Too many chiefs, not enough Indians (or something similar)
- Tribe/tribal/tribalism (if not referring to an indigenous group of people)
- War paint
These are just a few examples, and there are others related to different cultures. Just do not do.