Cultural Appropriation, Cultural Appreciation And Fair Trade Fashion
This post comes from Francesca of Ethical Unicorn, and covers a topic that I agonize over regularly. I hope you find it as useful as I did!
(Disclaimer about this article, I’m a white western woman who hasn’t lived these experiences myself, though I have studied them. If I miss anything out or could word it better, please tell me and I will amend. And if this is something you have direct experience of and would like to talk about, Ethical Unicorn would be happy to share you story – get in touch here.)
With the dawn of a new year comes a whole load of resolutions. And in amongst them, more people committing to making more ethical fashion choices in 2018. Whether this be buying more secondhand, fair trade or sustainably produced, the space for sustainable and ethical fashion is growing, alongside those pledging to get involved.
This, of course, is great news. Most of us in this sphere couldn’t help but notice how much more buzz there was around conscious practice in 2017, and the growing trend of willingness to make changes that align with our beliefs is encouraging. But there’s one element that I haven’t seen discussed that much, which is the interplay of culture, race and intersectionality within fair fashion.
Most of the world’s clothing, both fast fashion and sustainable fashion, is manufactured in countries that we would label ‘developing’ or ‘Global South’ (more info on that here). If a company isn’t specifically focused on local production then we can reasonably assume that it’s manufacturing in countries that are not western or majority white, (the difference being that if it’s an ethical company they should be being created in better conditions, with fair pay and benefits). There are also many ethical fashion companies that operate as middlemen, both partnering with artisans to give them access to wider audiences and often establishing a structure that involves wider investment into the community they’re working with.
So we have two main strands:
- Companies that simply manufacture amongst cultures that are different to the typical western consumer
- Companies that are selling items deliberately created with the aesthetics and techniques of varying non-western cultures
Either way, it’s important we don’t ignore this dynamic of difference.
I think if we want to commit to fairer purchasing in 2018, it’s also important that we resolve to learn about how our choices relate to societies outside of the west. While the economics inevitably varies between companies and countries, I think a good place to start is examining our choices and learning the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Because there are genuine ways that you can appreciate, value and support a culture that isn’t your own, and there are also ways you can exploit it.
What is cultural appropriation?
Dazed gives a good definition here:
‘Cultural appropriation is defined as a “sociological concept which views the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture as a largely negative phenomenon”. Or, as I say, it’s picking and choosing which parts of a culture you want to participate in, often reducing significant cultural wear or styles to fashion statements. It’s wearing a hijab and bindi in a selfie without having to deal with the micro-aggressions many of us face while sporting the same attire. Especially with Islamophobia being pretty rampant right now, many hijabis face violent consequences for wearing things inherent to their culture, whereas someone posing in one is unlikely to suffer the same injustice.’
Essentially, cultural appropriation exists because of racism.
When we talk about racism we can think of prejudice and hate speech, but in reality racism is best defined as a structure of power in society. While prejudice is definitely part of racism, it’s simply one part. There is a larger structure at work, that all white people participate in, which results in people of colour being disadvantaged, discriminated against or endangered. We can see this in large and small ways; from police brutality, to unemployment, to representation in the media, to micro-aggressions. It all adds up, it’s all part of what racism is as a larger concept and structure.
This power structure makes itself abundantly clear when we look at cultural appropriation. It usually manifests as white people adopting aesthetic forms from the cultures of minorities and it being celebrated as a trend, while real minorities have been historically oppressed, and still affected today, for the same forms. The power balance is completely off.
‘True cultural exchange is not the process of “Here’s my culture, I’ll have some of yours” that we sometimes think it is. It’s something that should be mutual… as free as people should be to wear whatever hair and clothing they enjoy, using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.‘ (source)
We see the strongest examples of this in fashion. Companies like Urban Outfitters and Free People have faced controversy for creating ‘Native American’ products with no consultation or true understanding of First Nation culture. This not only disregards and trivialises real people and sacred beliefs, it also directly profits off people that for hundreds of years were killed and abused (and still are) because of their culture. But now a white CEO profits from people wanting to play dress up and look like a Native American for a day, without having to deal with any of the lived violence or oppression that comes with actually being part of that culture. As scary mommy explains:
‘The people who Europeans and Americans stole from, enslaved and slaughtered, in the name of capital, continue to be exploited to this day, under the guise of “appreciation.” You can appreciate diversity without fetishizing it, and without contributing to the ongoing financial exploitation of the art and culture of colonized peoples.’
If you’re buying something from a different culture, and all that money is going into the pockets of white people who have no connection to that culture, you may be playing a part in appropriation. But there is a better way to do things.