By: Jessica Joonam
When we hear the words “cultural appropriation,” most might think of the Kardashians wearing cornrows, or Native American headdresses on Halloween. The appropriation of Asian cultures isn’t usually the first thought to come to mind, as we are often disregarded and not as high of a priority in American eyes. It’s a social taboo to use any culture as a costume, but what about the ones who also profit from this behavior as well? Many artists, producers and designers have been guilty of this but it happens, it is always swept under the rug and forgotten about. Why is appropriation of Asian cultures never as controversial as others?
America is called a melting pot of cultures from around the world, but for some reason, Asian culture is always treated as cutting edge in the music and fashion industry. More often than not, it is misrepresented and/or sexualized to fit western standards. Traditional garments, languages, and aesthetics are used for exoticism. The idea of looking “foreign” is more important to the artists than actually having respect for the culture they are basing their work around and borrowing from. Ignorance plays a big factor in drawing the line between appropriation and appreciation.
Asian cultures can be misrepresented easily due to lack of proper knowledge. For example: Rihanna’s “Princess of China” video. The video has a Chinese theme but she is seen wearing long gold claws on her fingers from a traditional Thai dance called Fawn Lep. Another example is Nicki Minaj’s Saturday Night Live performance for her song “Chun Li,” which was a random mix of both traditional Chinese and Japanese pieces and stereotypical aesthetics. Some tried to argue that Nicki is of Asian descent, but many fail to realize that Asia is the largest continent in the world and that her Indian heritage has nothing to do with East Asia! These patterns of behavior in entertainment and fashion are prevalent and ongoing. While I could feel flattered that people find our cultures beautiful and fascinating, it still doesn’t feel quite right; and I can’t help but think that these stereotypes they place on us are anything *but* a compliment. To simply educate themselves on what they are using as a costume is easy, but they couldn’t be bothered. One can only assume that they truly don’t have any real respect for us, or for our cultures. Credit is hardly given where due, and we all start to look the same to outsiders because they refuse to educate themselves. This proves that the culture is far from being appreciated, and just used as a temporary prop for monetary gain.
The fashion industry is one of the most fast paced industries in the world. Designs are constantly stolen and replicated. “Oriental” designs and textiles are often used to create fashion pieces. They are usually sexualized to appear sensual, but exotic enough to appeal to westerners. The importance and history behind the pieces are stripped away and broken down, spitting out a version that is both acceptable and modern enough to flaunt in the fashion world. There are no boundaries when it comes to using traditional designs of different countries. Even high-end designers don’t hold themselves above trying to start a trend, no matter where the influence comes from. In February 2018, the Italian fashion house Gucci (which was recently named the world’s hottest fashion brand by Lyst) featured an array of looks which were styled with turbans, headscarves, niqabs, belly dance head accessories, and a third eye. All the main looks on the runway were created with stereotypically West Asian and North Indian pieces. Gucci also placed mostly white models in these pieces. If there were Sikh or West Asian models, they were vastly outnumbered by white models. This further implements stereotypes by placing non-Asian models in other cultures’ pieces for the aesthetic. It is not that hard to find the appropriate models! Even with minimal modeling experience, any person of that cultural background should automatically be more qualified for that spot on the runway than someone who can shed that culture off at the end of the night and go back to being to a more normalized culture. This type of selectiveness and appropriation is a double whammy, an absolute slap in the face to anyone who is looking for an opportunity to represent their heritage only to be turned away for someone else that does not even come from their culture. Asians have received such a lack of respect that our culture is only appealing when represented by others. This instills even more racism and hate for us, the value of our lives diminished and only seen worthy of being the source of their entertainment and trends. This is the unfortunate truth for many cases of appropriation.
With Asia being so large and usually generalized down to the largest East Asian countries, it’s not a surprise that the ignorance of South and West Asia is so common as well. Somehow, only the stereotypical staple pieces are cherry picked by corporations and pushed out into the modern retail world for consumption with no credit to the originators of the pieces. Companies such as Urban Outfitters or Dollskill are multiple offenders of turning symbols of importance into simple trends. Blinged out bindis are sold as trendy and fun costume accessories, always showcased on non-Asian models of course. Or Urban Outfitters’ version of the Palestinian keffiyeh, nicknamed the “Anti-war scarf.” While I can appreciate the subtle push for Palestine’s freedom, it’s still inappropriate to be turning the genocide of innocent civilians into a fashion statement for hipsters looking to spice up their wardrobe for the day.
The appropriation of Asian cultures will never end as long as we are still fetishized by outsiders. It’s unfair to us that the things we are harassed, attacked, or mocked for are seen as trendy and appealingly foreign when worn by others. As well as being disrespected by common stereotypes, we are hardly credited properly. Misrepresentation and ignorance is alarmingly common. A majority of the time, our cultures are being appropriated, and not appreciated like we deserve. If anyone took the time to even educate themselves on the beautiful art we have to offer, surely this mistake would not be as big of an issue. I am hopeful that Asians will eventually stop being portrayed as stereotypes and the rest of the world sees past what the industry likes to show for shock value.
Image credit: Pexels