Society & Culture

Cultural Appropriation: Geishas, Jive Assing & Navahoes – Oh My!

“Exoticism is a luxury of the victors, and one of victory’s psychological comforts. The other is not merely to be exploited but also to be enjoyed, enjoyment being a finer form of exploitation.” – Professor Jan Nederveen Pieterse

20131130-152958.jpgThere has been a lot of talk in the media lately about Cultural appropriation thanks to “Geisha” Katy, “Ratchet” Miley, and “Pocahotness” parties among Phi Sigma Kappa members among others.

The appropriation of the cultures and bodies of dominated people and the rage of those fetishized is a centuries old practice so I just couldn’t understand why it was all of a sudden front page news. I’m still not really sure why the alarm is ringing now but it may be because people of color can express their pain and discomfort without as much fear of White backlash as in the past.

20131130-152827.jpgSocial media may have a lot to do with it because people can discuss controversial topics behind the cloak of an online identity. Perhaps my Aunt would still have her job if the internet existed back in 1989 instead of her getting fired for telling off management.

She was told to “look more professional” after she wore cornrows to work while the office gushed over a White female colleague’s Bahamian tan and “Bo-Derek do” just two months later and she snapped. Now she would probably just log on as “honey433” and discuss her situation until she felt better before she had to straighten her hair or look for a new gig. Who knows?

20131130-152942.jpgThe point is, now that people of color have Facebook and other platforms to express themselves without fear of confrontation or losing their jobs, Whites can see that its not just a few “troublemakers” that get annoyed.

Sympathetic journalists may then translate these posts into thought-provoking articles for the general population.

Personally, I think its great that these discussions are taking place on a wider scale.

I think its important for all people to consider why in 2013 non-European culture is still perceived as erotic, exotic or humorous and freely adopted for “fun” while the assimilation of European cultural norms remains a mark of class, civilization and mandatory for basic survival.

Something I have seen quite often in commentary sections after the cultural 20131130-152921.jpgappropriation alarm has sounded is why they can’t wear or do what they want without people giving them shit about it.

Especially since there are plenty of examples of people of color appropriating European culture. These individuals fail to remember that the adoption of European culture was not an option for the majority of the planet, it was either do or die so the comparison doesn’t work. Everyone outside of the dominant culture that desires to be perceived as competent, respectable and non threatening must become a virtuoso at code switching if they are to succeed. So it really isn’t about good intentions and personal expression as much as it is about the privilege of power.

20131130-152858.jpgSo what do you do when you really feel an affinity for or appreciation of another culture? Learn about it, ask questions and don’t divorce it from its people and their history.

Just FYI: Here is a very short list of garments you might wear everyday that was appropriated into Western fashion after the subjection of people from conquered lands:

1. Bathrobe (Reinvisioned Japanese Yukata)
2. Bustle (imitation of African steropygia or “big butts”)
3. Pajama (Islamic outfit),
4. Loafers (Reinvisioned Mocassins)
5. Hennin or stereotypical “Princess Hat” (Middle Eastern)
6. Nightgown (S.E Asian/Middle Eastern)
Smoking Jacket (Middle Eastern)
6. Poncho (Pre-Hispanic Native American garment)
7. Tiara (Persian)
8. Leopard Print Items (once only reserved only for Traditional African Priests/Nobility)

Images: A Druze Princess wearing a traditional Hennin circa 1860’s, a contemporary Princess Halloween costume, An Illustration of Sartje Bartman “the Hottentot Venus”, A Bustle Mannequin, An African High Priest/Chief in Leopard Skin, An officer from the U.K. donning Leopard skin as a symbol of having conquered African people.


Tayannah McQuillar is a writer and the Founder of Demimonde Public Relations ( @demimondepr


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