I have a question about political correctness, specifically the current hypersensitivity to cultural appropriation. This issue has been bothering me for a long time, so I would appreciate honest feedback and opinions.
In 2013 I studied abroad in Germany. Partway through my program, I told my host family I was interested in buying a dirndl, a traditional Bavarian dress. They were somewhat surprised but happy to take me to several shops and help me try them on; all the women in the stores were excited to help me, and they loved that I was looking for an authentic dirndl as opposed to a cheap costume.
I absolutely love the history and culture present in clothing like this, as well as the idea that even today you can just go into a shop and buy something with so much tradition. America doesn’t have anything like that. I rarely have a chance to wear my dirndl, but I’m still glad that I bought it because it’s so much fun to have.
So far so good, right? No problems yet?
(If there are, I’m sorry. It’s going to get worse.)
Then in 2016 I studied abroad in Japan. One of the program activities was to attend the Gion Matsuri, a huge festival in Kyoto. As a gift, we each received a yukata (a summer kimono) to wear to the festival and then to take home. This was, without a doubt, one of the highlights of the entire program. I could hardly breathe because of how tight the obi was, and I had to take uncomfortably small steps, but I loved every minute of it. I felt beautiful, and again, there was so much culture and history in the clothing. It was amazing.
The only reactions I received were positive ones. People gave me compliments, loved the way I tried to imitate a traditional hairstyle (even with pretty short hair), and smiled at how excited I was. Locals kept asking to take pictures of me because foreigners so rarely take part in these festivals, much less properly wear a yukata.
And now let me ask you: was this me being an insensitive racist? Was I appropriating Japanese culture? I clearly don’t have a single drop of Japanese blood in my veins. I wasn’t born or raised in Japan. And yet I put on a yukata. I went to a festival in it. I posted pictures of myself wearing it on my Facebook page.
HOW DARE I???
Well, let me tell you.
There is a very important difference between racism or cultural appropriation, and participative celebration of a culture. It’s all about intent: are you trying to make fun of something foreign to you, or are you excited about it and looking to take part in it?
This idea has been completely obscured recently. Everywhere I look, people are getting offended, pointing fingers, screaming about the insensitivity of the horrible white people stomping other cultures into the dirt. (It’s usually white people. If you’re going to get mad about something I say in this post, please don’t nitpick that detail. That’s not the point.)
And sometimes that’s true. Sometimes people are racist, insensitive, wrong. But—this is the important part—not always. Am I supposed to stay only within the confines of my own ethnic culture, and never explore or celebrate other ones? Me wearing a dirndl is fine, because I am ethnically German. But is the fact that my family only comes from Ireland and Germany supposed to limit me from ever taking part in other cultures?
Here’s another example. Anyone who has met me knows that I braid my hair almost every day, and I have for years. Braids are perfect for everything. You could wear them, say, while performing at a medieval fair. Or to be a classy student representative at the UN, or while hiking on Mt. Vesuvius, or even while touring Kyoto in sweltering summer humidity.
But today, I found out that *gasp* I’m apparently a terrible, terrible person for braiding my hair like that. Because in terms of technique, there’s no difference between a Dutch braid and a cornrow. And I’m not black. Ergo I am not allowed to wear cornrows, ergo I’m not allowed to braid my hair this way, and doing so is an insult to black cultures all over the world. RIGHT???
Except, why can’t I? When I was little and we went on vacations, one of my favorite things was to get my hair braided into—hold on now—cornrows. I remember sitting on this beach, when I was six years old, while this nice local lady braided my hair as tight as she could. I remember needing to hold my head really still during it, which was hard because it hurt to have my hair pulled so tight. But for a few weeks after that I had a fabulous set of braids, usually with a headband made of beads. I loved them. Nobody ever said that I was being culturally insensitive. So what if my skin isn’t the same color as the lady who did it? Why should that matter? She knew how to do an awesome hairstyle that I liked. My mom didn’t know how, so it was something I could only have when we went on vacation. End of story.
And yet a simple Google search of “cultural appropriation” will pull up an insane number of articles saying that any white person wearing cornrows, or other traditionally non-white hairstyles or clothing, is systematically oppressing ethnic minorities, shaming their cultures, capitalizing on their traditions, etc, etc. I’m not exaggerating here; this is what a 30-second search pulls up:
To summarize those “horrible, oppressive crimes”: a woman wore a dress, another woman said she’s changing her musical style yet again, and a teenager wore braids. An artist’s show was cancelled because her work looked “too indigenous.” A man sold a really expensive jacket. Realize also that those articles were all written in the past 10 days; that’s how much finger-pointing is going on right now.
How far does the mentality of “sorry, this is a club for our ethnicity only” stretch? I guess I’m not allowed to study Japanese either. Or Russian, or French, or Arabic, or Swahili, because I’m just an Irish-German-American girl. Maybe my claim on the German language is too thin as well—after all, I was raised American. How dare I presume to take ANY of those languages for my own use. Maybe that dirndl was going too far, too.
I sincerely hope everyone agrees that this is ridiculous.
We live in an increasingly international, interconnected world. An unavoidable and welcome side effect of that is that cultures will start to mix, whether through fashion, food, or language. The only way to NOT experience this would be to build a wall around each country in the world and prevent all contact with the outside, and to also ensure that everyone inside each wall acts only in a way that is deemed purely, acceptably “traditional.”
One country’s doing that right now. It’s called North Korea, and nobody is suggesting that we use them as a model for our own regulation of culture.
If our ultimate goal is to create a world full of mutual respect for and appreciation of all cultures, why the current backlash against people who incorporate pieces of other cultures into their own lives? Against actually living a part of those cultures because they admire them? Do we really want to turn culture into something in a glass case for everyone to admire but no one to touch? That just doesn’t make sense.
The mixing of cultures is something that we should celebrate, not get up in arms about. If I want to wear a yukata, then as long as I’m not using it to mock Japan, that should be fine. Same with braiding my hair or speaking German or adopting whatever aspects of foreign cultures I admire and want to emulate in a respectful, conscious way. That’s what it means to live in a global society.
And if I’m wrong, if everything I’ve said here is horribly offensive and behind the times and I actually need to stay within the confines of my own culture all the time from now on, I guess I’ve got two clothing options:
That’s right. Athleisure/flannel/baseball cap, or the American flag head-to-toe. Shown here, fittingly, while I was literally on a ferry to see the Statue of Liberty, although bald eagles posing majestically in the background would be an appropriate accessory as well.
What a fantastic fashion statement that will be.