There’s very little to be said about cultural appropriation that hasn’t been said before, but as the theft and misuse of cultural elements continues, so does the conversation.
A universal definition would be a good place to start, but intellectual property and cultural heritage law and policy advisor Brigitte Vézina says this is a key challenge: agreeing on what qualifies as appropriation. In her work at the World Intellectual Property Organisation and as a fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, she has dealt with these issues for most of her career.
“There have to be four elements present,” she says. “The first one will be the use of a cultural element in a different context from its original customary context. The second element will be a power imbalance between the source culture and the culture where the element is being used. In other words, one group will be relatively dominant in relation to the other. The third element is that there’s been no involvement from the source culture. So there’s no acknowledgement of the source, there’s no retribution or contribution in terms of a payment or another non-financial contribution and there’s also been no cooperation, so there hasn’t been authorization that’s been asked [for] or the source culture hasn’t participated in any way. The fourth element is that this causes harm. It can be economic harm; for example, if the sales of the authentic products are harmed by the creation of a product that culturally appropriates.”
An informed public cannot ignore the injustice of appropriation as it happens in front of them
“It could also be social harm,” she adds. “Where the identity of the source culture is being diluted, where the cultural appropriation perpetuates negative stereotypes that could harm the identity of the group. It could also be cultural harm, where the culture is being distorted, the meaning is lost, and this can cause offense and can be considered extremely disrespectful and insulting. If these four elements are in place, we’re likely facing a case of cultural appropriation.”
Across the Middle East, cultural appropriation has looked like everything from inaccuracies in stories like Disney’s Aladdin to fashion’s adaptation of the Keffiyeh (Kufiyah) as a global trend. It has been largely focused on the misrepresentation of Arab peoples and cultures, reinforcing harmful stereotypes about the region.
As the digital age helped globalization spread, and as increased cultural exchange followed, cultural appropriation became a bigger issue. Simultaneously, society has become more assertive in the defence of social justice causes, like the ownership of cultural elements.We are now quite well informed on the patterns of exploitation that have shaped the unjust power dynamics of the world we live in. An informed public, one more inclined to fight for social parity than ever, cannot ignore the injustice of appropriation as it happens in front of them.
“I’ve definitely seen a shift in the conversation online… you have accounts like Diet Prada on Instagram and these kind of watchdogs of the fashion industry,” says Vienna Kim, an art and fashion writer whose research into cultural appropriation won her a place on Business of Fashion’s 2016 Future Voices of Fashion list. “I have noticed that there are certain brands that are responding to the call out culture that’s arising; they’re really listening to younger people.”
She continues, “The main instance that is in my head is when Gucci hired a new staff member [Renée Tirado, Global Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] whose job is to have conversations with people and make sure that when they are using a certain motif or something like that, that they are understanding what the context of it is.”
The fashion industry in particular needs to work out the best way to represent cultures (and their values regarding their intellectual property)
Context is key, not just in the use of these cultural elements but in the rising call out culture that seeks to hold brands accountable. Discussing these issues on social media platforms that were not built for the nuanced exchange of perspective often leads to mob shouting matches in which key points get lost in the noise. The backlash against the depiction and use of Native American dance and dress in a recent Dior Sauvage fragrance campaign is a good example. What got lost in the outrage was that Dior worked with Americans For Indian Opportunity, an indigenous advocacy group. Involving them as stakeholders technically makes the campaign an above-board collaboration, but that does not invalidate the hurt caused by it, the hurt expressed by both the public and other Native American advocacy groups.
Both brands and the public then need to evaluate each instance of apparent appropriation independently, and ask the right questions to lead us to sound conclusions. The fashion industry in particular needs to work out the best way to represent cultures (and their values regarding their intellectual property) more accurately in these processes, as it would seem that the Americans For Indian Opportunity was not the best choice.
The industry doesn’t need encouragement to develop standards for defending fair collaboration from uninformed attack, but fashion also needs to develop practices for a fair response to legitimate claims of appropriation, one that goes beyond pulling a campaign, issuing a standardized apology and hoping the news cycle buries the mess.