It seems that this past year when I go clothes shopping, I find that most of the clothes are inspired by cultures that are not my own. Aside from the Halloween costumes of gypsies, Native Americans, Mexicans, Hawaiians, etc. are the everyday fashions that seem quite popular now. I have seen a proliferation of “South Western” prints (those inspired by the Native Americans of southwest), as well as feather and dream catcher motifs. Leather, beads, fringes, turquoise, and other Native American inspired materials and patterns are also common. African prints on pants and dresses seemed popular last year. In a way, shopping seems like navigating a mine field of stolen artifacts.
I don’t have a clear litmus test for if a particular clothing item is cultural appropriation. Different patterns, materials, or motifs may mean different things to different people in different contexts. Some may be sacred and some may be shared. At the heart of the issue though is power. The most obvious example are the Halloween costumes, which are often a racist and sexualized caricature of an oppressed racial, ethnic, or cultural group. The group that is represented benefits in no way from these costumes, as they perpetuate a hateful image that the oppressed group is not in control of. They dehumanize oppressed groups by making them into a joke, sex object, or even non-existent. For instance, a gypsy costume renders real Roma people as non-existent by depicting them as a fortune telling character of fantasy.
Most things are not so obvious. Fringes, leather, beads, turquoise, etc. may not be uniquely Native American but culturally associated with them and may have specific cultural meaning. Stripped away from their cultural context, it is hard to know what this meaning is. They are just cool, trendy items that look vaguely earthly. Again, power is important. Within capitalism, nothing is sacred. Because we, as workers, do not control production (that is, we are often estranged from the source and process of production) consumer goods appear to us as both mysterious and meaningless. A neon patterned Navajo printed poncho may have been sewn in Bangladesh. The dye and cotton may have come from other countries. The design for it by someone in an office. By the time it reaches Target or Ragstock, it is just one item of many- as mysterious and meaningless as any other. The pattern may not be recognized as even Native American or southwestern in origin because the history, art, and culture of Native American is not a social priority. Capitalism functions better if history is disjointed and people are atomized. Even if it is recognized as inspired by Native American motifs, this may not be seen as problematic to the white consumer. Why not? Well, a person could justify that in a global society there is so much exchange that the lines between cultures are blurry. A person might also think that it is a way to express appreciation for a culture. While this isn’t entirely false, the invisible force is power. Why are these things sold in Target or any other store? Why is it popular now? Why is it made in Haiti or Sri Lanka instead of by an actual Native American? How do Native Americans feel about it?
I can’t speak for how Native Americans may feel about the trendiness of cultural motifs. There are some things that have received a lot of attention, such as head dresses and Halloween costumes. So, clearly these things have been identified as either racist, disrespectful, or cultural appropriation. The general trendiness of patterns or materials that may not be specific to a particular tribe or tradition (a generic Native American-ness) gets less attention. However, as an outsider, I feel cautious about these items because A. Native Americans certainly aren’t benefitting from them (at least not when they are bought from mainstream stores that profit white people) B. They aren’t in control of fashion trends. C. It reinforces an idea that looking Native American is cool, but does nothing to actually promote social justice or end prejudice against those who actually look Native American-because they are. D. Culture becomes a fetish (i.e. meaningless and mysterious).
Still, shopping is a mine field. A solution from some environmental minded, do-it-yourself people would be not to shop and just make your own clothes or thrift (though, these items also appear in thrift stores). Education is perhaps another solution. However, quite honestly, even the best historian probably does not know the history of every material, pattern, or motif (as this would require an extensive knowledge of many cultures over many time periods). Nevertheless, it might be useful to educate yourself if a particular design catches your eye. Another option might be to buy things from Native American producers. This at least connects a person to the production process and supports the livelihood of that producer. Still, these are individual solutions that rely on consumer sovereignty to solve social problems- like racism. Social problems need social solutions.
Focusing on the individual or the product is often difficult because there is no universal meaning on particular cultural items. For instance, there might be some Native Americans who are happy that fashion is popularizing certain designs. There are others that may even partake in selling sacred items in order to make money. These examples can then be used to justify cultural appropriation. The truth is, among any group there is disagreement, as everyone experiences their culture and oppression slightly differently. Beyond this, because there has been both cultural exchange and cultural appropriation for so long, it is hard to see the difference between the two. For example, does this mean that white people can’t take belly dance lessons, yoga lessons, karate classes, eat tacos, eat sushi, believe in non-Western religions, etc? What about eating pumpkins, chocolate, or owning Chihuahuas? Some people would argue yes. Some would argue yes for some and no for others. Really, has anything been exchanged or given freely? European people have a long history of colonization and imperialism. Even when things are given, as long as there is unequal power the exchange is at least somewhat coerced.
That leads back to the same question, if so many things have been taken (many so long ago that there is no longer memory or resistance to it) then why bother? Why care? Again, this matters as much as a person wants to build better relationships with oppressed people and wants to promote social justice. With that said, if these are important goals (which I believe they are) then a person should be mindful of how their presentation of self and consumption may dehumanize or render invisible others. And while there is no perfect road map of what to wear and what not to wear or what to eat or what not to eat, mindfulness is important. But, mindfulness is individual. Another idea is to take cues from social movements. What do Native American or African American social movements say about particular items or behaviors? Finally, there is the building social movements component. Social movements that promote worker rights, environmentalism, indigenous rights, anti-racism, feminism, etc. can each work to solve the problems that cultural appropriation is symptomatic of. We need to know history. We need to be connected to production. We need to be connected with one another. The more that African Americans or Native Americans are treated like full human beings whose lives matter, they less they will be erased by fashion trends, Halloween costumes, police, disease, and poverty.
(As a side note, I don’t proclaim to be perfect on this issue. I am sure that many of the things I do or wear may be stolen without even noticing it. Also, while this piece uses Native Americans as the example, it should be extended to any oppressed racial, ethnic, or cultural groups)