I did it. Today someone on my instagram feed “did a thing,” and I had to say something about it. This young woman with whom I attended middle school several years ago has recently been posting photos of herself modeling in various places and doing various things. They’re all beautiful, and she is a lovely girl from what I remember. Today, however, she posted a new photo of herself in an American Indian-style tribal headdress.
Again, I have hardly, if at all, spoken to this girl since around 2010, and we weren’t best friends back then, just to set the scene for you. And I am not the girl who comments on Kylie Jenner’s instagram when she wear cornrows or blasts Iggy Azealea for her racist actions. So did I step out of line? Perhaps. But I tried to do so as respectfully as possible to point out the flaws of this photo. Here is what went down:
Me: “I’m rarely the one to cry cultural appropriation especially to a culture that’s isn’t my own but this is completely disrespectful. You are stunning in this photo and the others but I would recommend you and your photographer do some research especially if you are trying to be a professional. This is becoming more and more of shameful action. I don’t mean to be rude or point my finger at you but it’s really not the best representation of yourself and your art.” I also posted a link to an MTV article about appropriation especially in the form of wearing headdresses.
Girl: “I already read the article. i am fully aware of this being politically incorrect. although to appreciate another culture is nothing shameful. people dress in costume every Halloween like this in face paint as well making it a joke. white girls wear their hair in cornrows. I appreciate you trying but why don’t you rag on all the girls wearing kimonos from lawrence”
Me: “This issue isn’t wearing something from another culture. If you read the article you’ll know the problem with this specifically is a sacred tradition. It’s your gram, you can post what you want. I am just saying if I was trying to be seen as professional this would not be my chosen route.”
Girl: “‘The headdress is reserved for our revered elders who, through their selflessness and leadership, have earned the right to wear one.’ i read it Kam. thank you. i have people very close in my life that are Native American and haven’t said anything. Professional… there’s a whole page of well known models wearing this head piece. I go to college to be a social worker i live my whole life to help others. i’m wearing a head piece that is beautiful. leave me alone.”
I was then told by her other followers that I am “just jealous” and to “leave with my negative energy if her page isn’t up to my standards,” where she did defend that I was just sharing my opinion and we can agree to disagree, so thanks for that.
Now I’m speaking on my own site, so let me continue with my opinion and negative energy.
First of all, like I said to this girl, I was not trying to attack her personally or call her a racist or anything. I think I chose my words carefully, and I appreciate the way she defended herself. I took the approach as to letting this be a teaching moment. I don’t know if she is trying to be a professional model, I don’t know if her photographer is a professional or trying to be one. What I do know is that this post was not “politically incorrect,” it was just downright offensive. The article explained that the use of the headdress is traditionally sacred, which is why it’s not okay for commoners to put one on to take an edgy photo. Kimonos, are not sacred cultural symbol, so for girls from Lawrence or wherever to wear something in the style or even called a “kimono” is okay. Should we all take a history lesson when donning trends from other cultures? Sure. But is there a difference between sharing trends and appropriating culture? Absolutely.
Again, I am rarely the one commenting on things like kimonos and cornrows, because things like that seem more of a gray area to me, and I am still learning. When it comes to headdresses, it’s just a fact. Victoria’s Secret couldn’t get away with it. Pharrell couldn’t get away with it. Will this girl get away with it? Maybe. It’s her personal instagram account and I seemed to be the only person who cared, but hopefully she’ll think about her actions because I said something.
I have posted before about my annoyance with the apparent influx of “cultural appropriation arguments.” My first week of college I wanted to yank my eyeballs out because it was such a “big deal,” but I think some aspects are important. I say some not to say some cultures being targeted are less important, but rather to say that in becoming more aware of this, we are walking a fine line.
The issue is being afraid of cultural appropriation rather than being aware of it. If something you want to wear or do might be considered appropriation, you should absolutely research it. But the keyword there is research, not just avoiding it altogether. If we walk around on eggshells saying things like “I shouldn’t use chopsticks that’s appropriation!” we breed xenophobia. I think chaotically-neutral on tumblr said it best when they said,
“Historically, separating cultures often leads to cultural incompetence, xenophobia, discrimination, stereotyping, and racism. Cultural appropriation is bad, but that doesn’t make cultural segregation good.”
I’m not always right. But I think discourse is important especially when it come to these issues. The girl on instagram said she lives her whole life to help others and I think that’s great. However, I think she made a mistake in posting this picture and I hope she and the people that applauded her can see that.
The world is constantly changing, and it’s hard to keep up with what is still okay to do and what is really looked down upon in society. We’re all gonna make mistakes, but I hope that we continue to accept when that happens and learn from them.
UPDATE: 9 hours later the picture is still up, and someone else has joined the argument. This person commented:
“Honestly i truly believe cultural appropriation is determined by who you are as a person and your morals and beliefs and i think the issue with so many people is that they are assuming that you are not advocating for the oppressed people you are so called “representing” but they wouldn’t know that. If they knew you theyd know you are going to school for social work aka working against social issues. Basically i always say never appreciate a negative opinion from someone who doesnt really know you.”
To which the poster replied:
“This was so well said. thank you. the whole issue with wearing a headpiece is that in their culture you have to earn the right to wear it, but i do not live in their society. i fully respect their traditions.”
I’m trying to let it go and walk away, but I am getting angrier. I would post more comments on the picture, but clearly no one is paying attention. Basically, this person is saying you’re only appropriating a culture if you actually hate and intend to disrespect the culture and its people. She is correct and saying I don’t really know the girl who posted the picture. I don’t know her morals or her actions. But, I never said she was a bad person for posting this. I did say I think her actions were disrespectful and it is cultural appropriation.
Once again, it’s not about whether or not she hates Native Americans. I don’t think that’s what she is saying in the photo. The fact is she took a symbol- the headdress- which is sacred in Native American culture, and used it in a casual way. This is appropriation because it is taking something that is earned and highly regarded in a culture and dismissing it as a fashion accessory. She made it worse when she defended herself by saying she earned it because she’s a good person.
Also, does this other commenter know what a social worker is? Not to say they don’t do good work, but “working against social issues” isn’t exactly the job description. I suppose that’s a really general description, but their job is not to be out fighting racism, they help families and in some cases people with disorders and other issues. Again, not bad work, very good work indeed, just not what this person thinks they do.
Also, does the poster realize the hypocrisy in her statement, “I do not live in their society. I fully respect their traditions.” YOU ARE DOING THE OPPOSITE. She is saying “I’m not black so I can say the n-word because I ‘respect’ them.” Her friend is saying, “I can be racist because I’m a good person.”
I am appalled.
I am also counting my blessings because I am so grateful for my education.