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Cultural Appropriation

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By Katriena Emmanuel

So I’ve came across another article recently about Cultural Appropriation which has prompted me to write this essay. Whilst I recognise everyone is entitled to an opinion, I feel there has never quite been a balanced discussion on the concept of “Cultural Appropriation” with particular reference to the fashion industry’s impact.

This concept – Cultural Appropriation, bothers me a lot. It feels as though it is more like the voice of a “collective ego” saying this is mine and you are not worthy to share in it because you are not one of us, you are different, and not part of this culture/ race/ religion. I believe we are all one, all human beings, that when you strip away all the egotistical things we identify ourselves with that we are one and the same, the body is just a host for our “beings”, an identity we craft for ourselves, but it isn’t our true self. Facts or adjectives we like to attach to ourselves like “I am a photographer”, “I am a woman”, “I am Australian”, “I am white”, “I am heterosexual” – these aren’t me! They are not who I am. What I am is a human being – a being who is experiencing a human existence, in this body of mine.   If we are striving for equality and non-discrimination, then isn’t “exclusion” the opposite of fostering equality.

Let’s face it, it is a human weakness of ours to compartmentalise, categorise and attach certain descriptions and labels to ourselves and others (we are quite judgemental especially to ourselves), which to me only serve to divide, discriminate and magnify our physical differences.   This brings me back to the whole argument of “cultural appropriation” where certain cultures feel dishonoured or disrespected by others who borrow certain aspects of their cultural traditions, whether it be their dialect, dance style, hairstyle, food, fashion or dress style. It raises a whole debate which seems to magnify what is different about us, thereby creating this “exclusivity”, “separateness”, “you can’t sit with me” mentality.

I’ve noticed too in modern society where we feel guilty for something our ancestors have done in the past against another group of people, that we feel obliged to give them special treatment or privileges to this group as a form of retribution for our ancestors past actions. Whilst this certain group of people wronged in the past often still continue in present day to fight for equality, I’ve always felt that these privileges or special treatment actually work against them in perpetuating that something is different about them, that they must be treated differently. When in actuality, nothing is different about us at all, we are one and the same. People cling to the past, even though more than likely they weren’t even born at the time when the past atrocities took place. History isn’t meant to be relived, it is only meant to serve us to look back and learn from the mistakes so that we do not repeat them in the future. If we are constantly re-living the past emotionally and psychologically, then how can we heal, make progress and live in the present moment.

The ego is a bastard of a thing. I’ve recently discovered this truth in myself, that is. I believe that we can truly unite as ONE consciousness, letting go of all stereotypes, perceptions, discrimination, racial tensions if we learn to detach and no longer cling to the things that perpetuate our differences. Only then can we truly all see each other as equals, made from the same star dust and not the “things” we attach onto for our identity.

I’m not trying to start a war or diminish the value of traditions and cultural heritage, I am only wanting to shed light on the greater picture, on how we can all try to better understand each other and blend harmoniously so we are united by sharing and participating in each other’s traditions rather than creating a sense of exclusivity.

This is one of the reasons I believe art is so valuable to our human experience. I believe that we share one collective consciousness and in this consciousness, thoughts and ideas are shared. You can imagine it as one big swimming pool full of ideas, thoughts and inspiration, that one only has to reach out and pluck an idea from it. Art brings a kind of evolution to our understanding of the human condition and brings us closer to understanding our true being. For centuries, artists have borrowed, appropriated, stolen:- ideas, symbolism, culture, stylistic identity, thoughts, perceptions, beliefs from all around and amalgamated, redefined and re-invented them, thereby dissolving all bonds to their original form and uniting them to the whole. In Trinidad, the Caribbean island I grew up, we had a saying on how we described our country, we called ourselves “the melting pot” – taking all the cultures, races, religious beliefs and blending them all, sharing and participating in them all, we ultimately developed an understanding and tolerance for our differences.

The Fashion World, which unarguably has a lot of negative publicity surrounding it for curating certain ideas of beauty, is only the messenger in this game. If you look back on the past, history has shown us the number of times the definition of beauty has been redefined and still is. But don’t put all the blame on the fashion elite, we only have ourselves to blame. We, as a communal consciousness, perpetuate and distil unconsciously the definitions of beauty. Fashion designers like artists draw inspiration from history, society, nature, culture, religion and so on. Can you imagine counting the number of times the symbol of Christianity’s cross/ crucifix has been re-created in fashion. It would be too many to list. Sometimes, designers deliberately draw upon these particular religious or cultural references because they know of the power they have on our collective consciousness in conjuring up a feeling or a thought, or perhaps simply they are playing up to our egos.

Fashion is probably the most influential art form there is, as it has the ability to reach the masses. As fashion, being the art form of how we cloth ourselves, how we dress our egos in one form of an identity or the other, can help spread a collective consciousness, redefining our perceptions of beauty and building those bridges for unity and fraternity.

More recently, I have seen some positive changes in the Fashion Industry, and in actuality it is probably more open minded than most of us give it credit for. Just think about models like Melanie Gaydos, Chantelle Brown-Young, Daphne Selfe, Alex Minsky, Winnie Harlow and Casey Legler – These are just a few beings who are opening up our mindsets in seeing the limitlessness of true beauty. But again I don’t want to perpetuate a diversity that magnifies our differences but rather that amalgamates us as one, is more inclusive of all forms of beauty that is part of our human experience.

So rather, let’s truly be a global community and educate, embrace, share and participate in each other’s “stylistic identities”. As they are just that essentially, an identity, like a mask or a costume we put on and take off, but which is NOT at the core of who we really are. So let’s tell our egos to shut up and not take things so personally anymore, let’s detach ourselves in order to attach ourselves to the truth, that we are one collective consciousness made up of human beings.

As Ellen DeGeneres preaches “Be kind”. That’s all.

Instagram: @katrienaemmanuel
Website: Kateriena Emmanuel
Facebook: Emmanuel Photography

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