Mimi's question: Cultural appropriation

 Mimi asked a question in the comments section of the post "More about missteps: Trying too hard":

"In the last few years, here in the USA, I “think” as I am not completely sure, but it is no longer. “ok” to wear something from a culture/people into which I do not belong....

Question: I have lived in Seoul, back in 2008, and really like the handbok style of women’s top & skirt. I’m short and a size 10 in skirts so definitely not petite. Would it be not appropriate to wear handbok top & skirt if I am not Korean or a part of a Korean family? Is this similar to, if I were to wear dreadlocks?" 

Cultural appropriation is the act of copying or using the customs and traditions of a particular group or culture by someone from a more dominant group in society, without acknowledgement, permission or appreciation. Those customs and traditions are significant elements of the appropriated culture's identity, not merely "local dress".

The paramount question for anyone thinking about wearing such an item is, Am I adopting this from a culture or group which my own has oppressed? If so, whether intended or not, the act is perceived as continued domination. Criticism is especially harsh when the appropriator profits, e.g., the actions of Kim Kardashian.

Some social critics believe that regardless of history, a national costume should be worn only by citizens, with a few exceptions such as theatrical presentations. Appropriation extends to every element of culture, including customs, art, music, language, and the stories and meanings held in those. In the worst cases, it perpetuates stereotypes and dehumanizes. 

At times, the adopter is aware of the appropriation and intends it as a gesture of solidarity—such as the wearing of Tibetan Buddhist symbols (when one is not Buddhist)—or views it as an act of appreciation and amity. Advocates of identity-based politics express scepticism about appreciators; they charge that even appreciation trivializes others' customs and culture. 

Hair is another powerful signifier of identity. Dreadlocks and braids have been documented in many cultures over millennia, but because the era of American slavery and its legacy of racism is so recent and painful, the hair styles that carry powerful symbolism for Black communities are sensitive matters. The hair styles are one of the most-cited examples of how commodifying a tradition trivializes these cultures.

Let's run the test about the hanbok:

1. Are you considering wearing something specific to another culture (that is, not a generic item like white gym socks)? Yes; the hanbok is a national costume.

2. Has this culture been historically exploited or oppressed by yours? There is not a history of colonialism toward South Korea by your country, but at the same time, Asian-Americans have long faced discrimination within the US. 

You have a decision to make, but you're not on your own. You could speak with members of the local Korean community, or ask your question on Korean immigrants' online communities—but you might not hear a consensus. (Asking your friends in Seoul would yield another perspective; they are in the home country, thinking of you as a visitor.)

3. Will you wear the hanbok with appreciation and acknowledgement? Yes! You are eager to credit the source. You have no plans to profit from your behaviour.

So, #1 and #3 are a yes, #2 is the tricky area. Since you are not Korean, if you wear the outfit in the US you might be perceived as behaving insensitively. It's like my post on my old fur coat; I had to decide if I was willing to explain myself, should I be confronted.

Some reject the concept of cultural appropriation; they say, It's a big world, the borders have long been breached. They borrow mine, I borrow theirs, no big deal. (To really see freeform adoption of every culture going, go to Burning Man.) 

It seems that today the traditional hanbok ensemble is worn for special occasions and ceremonies, much like Japanese women wear the kimono; Mee Hee Hanbok in Los Angeles sell exquisite ones:

Photo: Mee Hee Hanbok, Los Angeles

I also found modern, short versions on Etsy (who knew?), which are not much different from a Western blouse-and-skirt:

Photo: Joeun Hanbok on Etsy

If you adopt it, you will be a curiosity. Be prepared, when asked, "What's that?" to briefly explain the provenance and share your appreciation. Wear it in the manner and setting it would be worn in Korea. 

Mimi, your comment led me to review my own appropriations. They were mostly committed in the '60s and early '70s when I did two things: I wore a long, gauzy dress embroidered with an indigenous Canadian motif, and far more often, a gift from my then-husband, a silver bracelet made by a First Nations silversmith. It never crossed my mind then, with the bracelet especially, that I was wearing symbols of indigenous spirituality that belong to people who have endured the very worst of Canadian institutions' racist practices.

You also led me to question whether I deliberately wear signifiers of my own ethnicity or other identity elements (religion, gender, affiliations). Currently I do not, but in my twenties, I wore a claddagh ring. Now, I view that my typically-Irish name says it all, and don't care who wears Celtic jewellery or slaps on a hat shaped like a pint of Guinness on March 17. 

I'd love to hear what you in the Passage think about Mimi's question. 



Susan M said…
I appreciate the criticism of cultural appropriation when others use signifiers to profit themselves. However, the appreciation of these signifiers should not be disparaged, in my view. “So what?” if others wear a Claddagh ring, a Scottish tartan, mukluk winter boots, use Blue Willow china, learn to speak another language, dance to island music, etc. All our cultures have “appropriated” for years, affecting technological development, language usage, fashion, cultural appreciation and trade. Is it cultural thievery? Yes, I guess it is but isn't “borrowing” from other tribes the way of our world? Adaptation into western culture seems inevitable, almost like the ongoing homogenization of the world. I recall the old adage, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and believe it applies in this case.
Jay said…
I think the issue doesn't lie with someone wearing an item in their personal life, it is a problem when they do so for profit or misuse religious symbols. Please feel free to wear a saree or salwar kameez to go to a party, office anywhere.
But pls don't have religious symbols on the clothes.A Ganesha on a T shirt is not appropriate.
Jay said…
The profit angle is a problem if an Indian weaver doesn't get a proportional share. This is a problem problem with Indian business owners too, but it rankles more when all the profit goes overseas.
I see this in bracelets created in Nepal being sold for $$$ in the west. Who knows what the creators were paid, given the fact of the Nepalese origin is a big selling point
Jay said…
Typing comments on a phone is hard..
Anonymous said…
mimi here. If I chose to wear the hanbok, it would be the shorter style one from Etsy. And of course, from a vendor in The Republic of Korea. I would only wear the long traditional one if my adult son were to marry a Korean and if she too was going to wear one and ask me to do so. Looking forward to reading the comments. And thank you for the blog post!
Duchesse said…
Susan M: Persons aligned with identity politics would reply that the statement, "all cultures have appropriated for years" does not make it right. They are most critical when a culture •with a history of oppression of another culture• appropriates from them. Check out the intense discussion of the wearing of oversized hoop earrings by persons who are not Black or Hispanic, e.g., an article on Vice titled "Hoop Earrings Are My Culture, Not Your Trend." Whether you think they have a valid point is of course up to you.

Jay: The aspect of exploitation of craftspersons is a related topic and thank you for raising it. It's not perfect, but buyers can look for FairTrade certification when buying is a goods and some makers sell in government-sponsored shops that certify good practices but one cannot naively assume the actual maker was paid fairly. (This is why I often show the work of makers whose studios I have visited.) Please comment using any method you like, it doesn't have to be perfect!
Duchesse said…
Jay: See what happens when I use my phone!
Duchesse said…
mimi: That's what I guessed, but those formal ones are stunning! Thank you again for your question, which is important and timely.
Jumpringer said…
When in doubt, don’t. There are plenty of fashion alternatives and designs that come close to what one would like to wear, such as a head wrap, a handbok, or other item, without appropriating. The Etsy image of the modern handbook is a good example. Some traditionalists, though, decry the modernization of the traditional handbok: https://www.koreatravelpost.com/introduction-to-south-koreas-traditional-dress-hanbok/.

Great post and fascinating subject.
Venasque said…
I can't really comment on the gauzy dress as you don't say who made it, but I think the bracelet is in an entirely different category. If a silversmith makes an item of jewellery and sells it on the open market, presumably they do not see it as something confined to their culture, to be only used by those who belong. Also as an indigenous artisan it would be difficult to make a living only selling to your own people I would think.

Some things are sacred - a silversmith making a communion cup for instance and it being removed from its purpose, or a bracelet that had some sort of spiritual role in someone's religious practices being sold to a person outside the group. I think there's a big difference between owning and using objects made by indigenous people that they sell, and taking things they wish to keep.
Jane in London said…
Ooof - a veritable minefield this week!

We don't have First Nations here in the UK, so the issues around this topic that might concern someone in, say, North America or Australia don't really feature in the same way for us. Here, the issue is more likely to arise in the context of white British people wearing items associated with the culture of non-white British who have a Commonwealth heritage.

But there is also a significant proportion of British people that have mixed heritage and - rightly - see themselves as free to mix and match as they please. So you tend to see some quite free-form stuff here, which (at least in London) people don't seem to worry about. Most people are wary these days about making assumptions about someone's ethnicity.

One thing that seems to be gaining traction here, particularly amongst the young, is concern about the preponderance of white British people teaching yoga - however respectful their approach to it may be. I'm not sure where that will go, but it's certainly a growing issue.

As someone who is entitled to wear specific clan and regimental tartans, I am more than used to seeing people wear them because they like the colour or because they had a Scottish Granny even if it's not their tartan. I don't mind in the least, although I know some people find it very insulting.

As a side issue, I love to see pictures of the Congolese 'sapeurs' who enjoy wearing full Highland Dress. They have the advantage of looking very good in their adopted style, which helps of course. For most of us, wearing dress from a different culture can be very tricky to pull off successfully even if we leave the appropriation issues to one side. At best, we may look awkward - at worst, culturally tone-deaf.

My own approach is that I steer well clear...

Duchesse said…
Venasque: I'll supply more detail. The piece was not on the open market, my then-husband commissioned it. He knew the artist slightly. The symbols (not specified by my ex)on the piece are traditionally reserved for those receive them as a gift from the community. I was this told by several native persons working in diversity programs. (An analogy might be wearing a military decoration one did not earn.) He in fact had received an object that featured a native symbol in gratitude for his work with the band.

I agree, not all items made by native artisans are intended for their own community; there are levels—as you say, sacred objects , but also important symbols not intended to be widely distributed. With digital technology it is all too easy to document these, copy and put them in the mass market. (Example: tribal tattoos not intended to be available to non-members.)

You raise a relevant question: If objects are offered for sale online or in shops, should we assume they are OK to wear? This is a good article: https://proudlyindigenouscrafts.com/2021/11/15/understanding-cultural-appropriation.

The long dress, which I bought at a hippie boutique, had a more generic design, as I recall, flowers and some arrowheads embroidered on the front. It also drew comment from First Nation persons, but more, "Hmmm, I wonder who designed that?" rather than censure.

Duchesse said…
Jane in London: I can't take credit, it's Mimi who asked the question. But it is a good one, with everything from head wraps to hoops and tribal tattoos under scrutiny, and the younger generations are asking the questions. In the case of the Sapeurs in Highland dress, here the colonized is adopting the colonizer's habits. Kilts with bowties! But, are they not hot in those clothes?

It seems the clan ownership requirement of tartans is fading, but there are many universal and commemorative tartans available too. There's even a registered Nova Scotia tartan. Fabric nerds will have fun on the Scottish Register of Tartans site.
Duchesse said…
Jane in London: Correction: "the colonized are..."
Ocd said…
I’ll add the obvious: in the US, fear of cultural appropriation could put quite a few Native American & Mexican silversmiths & artists out of work & destroy their livelihood.
I have some Navajo pieces that I bought in New Mexico; I have no hesitation in wearing them.
Jane in London said…
Duchesse - those chaps are indeed hotties. Just the thing to cheer up a Burn's night supper at a chilly Scottish castle... Oh - sorry - did you mean aren't they too warm in the clothes? ;)

The Scots (or indeed any of the British) did not, though, colonise the (then) Congo - that was Belgium.
Venasque said…
Thanks for the added info. I still stand by my comment, if an indigenous person made it (even if it was commissioned), he presumably knew what he was doing in using the symbols. If it didn't bother him, then it shouldn't bother you. As far as others are concerned, people spend their lives being offended, often about things that have nothing to do with them, or just have a different level of appropriation.

As far as those who are not indigenous making jewellery, for instance, and using indigenous art that's an entirely different matter. It's easy to get into the weeds here though - what about fringed suede jackets? Yes indigenous people made and make those jackets and wear that style of clothing, but I don't think they can claim to own jackets. Or fringe. And I'm sure someone, somewhere is offended by others doing just that.
Duchesse said…
Jane: Right you are that it was the Belgians! I think the Sapeurs look equally alluring in their suits, often pink.

Venasque: I disagree with "If it didn't bother him, then it shouldn't bother you." He is not the representative for the band, nor should one assume he was always acting in good faith. I resoundingly agree with your observation that "some people spend their lives being offended".
Duchesse said…
ocd: According to the article whose link I put in my comment to Venasque, there are many motifs that for lack of a better term (I'm sure there is one) are non-spiritual. I too own Navajo jewellery. There are no tribal or spiritual motifs on my pieces. I believe these kind of items are widely available. Many native makers say they have no problem using traditional symbols (the eagle, bear, etc.) as long as the buyer buys them from indigenous makers and wears them with respect and acknowledgement.
Jean Shaw said…
One painter and jewelry artist I know of, who is based in New Mexico, says that kachina emblems sold outside of the pueblos have had specific religious details removed. Her phrase: "Spirit is held for the Native people."
Duchesse said…
Jean Shaw: That's a forthright and apt way to describe the distinction; thank you.
Allison said…

The world is getting smaller and we will have to find common ground and understanding on many issues. Should my blonde blue eyed grandson want to dread his hair? His grandfather was a black man who was famous for his dreads, would my grandson be seen as honouring his grand father or misappropriating?
We are all feeling our way in this brave new world and errors in judgement will be made. The more we learn about other cultures the better we can understand. First we must seek to understand.
When in doubt ask someone who can explain to you why wearing/using/ or saying something may cause offence. This could be an elder, chief, educator or a leader of a religious community.
My biracial DIL’s aunt and grandmother have sat at our table and there have been many enlightening conversations about being a black person in Canada, whether as a young immigrant in the early ‘60’s or growing up as a black girl in a very white Pickering, Ontario in the late 1970’s. There is no judgement on either side just the sharing of history, the telling of stories, the validation of feelings.

Laura J said…
A real life and important topic. There’s no simple solution although themes emerge..Allison, I particularly like
“ . There is no judgement on either side just the sharing of history, the telling of stories, the validation of feelings.” Understanding what one is wearing and respect seem critical. Ours is a world both heavily fusion and tribal.
Duchesse said…
Allison: You have a front-row seat to this topic and the broader one of identity, culture and its symbols; thank you for this first-person reflection. I see it as part of the entire issue, and I am grateful that though many can ask someone to explain "wy wearing/using/saying something may cause offence", there are many online sites that explain that, too, and I have worked in (usually large, like our chartered banks) organizations who provide training in cultural awareness.

Laura J: I too appreciated that sentence of Allison's. And at the same time, I believe that the atmosphere of "no judgement" is enabled first, because they are family, and second, they are around a table together. When we can get to know one another, whether through work or personal relationships, we can ask questions, listen. One of the things I am most grateful for is living much of my adult life in cities with people of various heritages, who willingly share their stories, even the painful ones.
Anonymous said…
This discussion made me think of this article:

Duchesse said…
Anonymous: Thanks! Various elements of culture, and objects are included, come under more scrutiny now, whether they are considered appropriation, or unacceptable for other aspects discussed in this piece.

ICYMI... I ask commenters to sign their comments (a pen name is fine) if using the anonymous comment option, because it creates more community here in this tiny corner of cyberspace.
Bunny said…
I think, as you mentioned, Duchesse, the bottom line is profit. That could be monetary profit or just profiting emotionally from extra attention given to wearing a fashion not quite mainstream. I recently had a personal experience that really made me think about it. A few months ago I was in Joanns buying a non fabric item and a fabric caught my eye from way down the aisle. I was in a hurry, went down the aisle, loved the colors and amorphous shapes, grabbed the bolt and brought it to the cutting counter. As I chatted with other customers the clerk cut my yardage. As soon as I was home it was thrown into the washer and dryer and I went to find my favorite tee shirt pattern. I grabbed it from the dryer when ready, shook it out, placed it right sides together on the cutting table and started laying out my pattern pieces. Oh, how I loved these colors. As soon as the first piece was cut, the bodice front, I realized upon close inspection, the designe was not abstract shapes but heads of black women with large afro haircuts. It was a genius, highly stylized design and cetairnly one I appreciated artistically but was not mine to wear. I did not want to garner attention for wearing this design and I felt it didn't "belong to me." I proceeded to cut out the garment and make the shirt. I then donated to a nearby group that helps Somalian immigrants get settled here in our community, along with some other goods. I have donated to them before. Ehtically, I think if the garment is making you question whether you should wear it or not, you shouldn't. However if it's design inspires you to make a skirt that is similar, or a blouse or whatever that is in the fashion, go for it. But the whole traditional look, I'm not comfortable with that.
noreen said…
Its interesting that people are less concerned about wearing tartan than other cultural appropriation. as a scot i dont like to see people wearing a kilt which is not their own tartan. the scots were oppressed for many years and were forbidden from wearing their clan symbols.
Duchesse said…
Bunny: What a story for the times, and a respectful solution. For me, imagery of persons of other ethnicities on attire is a grey area, as your fabric was not a mocking depiction (like blackface), but to some it is bound to cross the line. I really like your rule of thumb—does the garment make me question whether I should wear it or not. My own "meter" has certainly changed since I started buying clothes at age 16 or so.

noreen: I was hoping to hear from a Scot. As a Canadian, I can wear the Royal Stewart tartan, as granted by the Scottish Register of Tartans, though there are many universal tartans available now. Have you seen the tartan-lined wedding gown? A first for me! https://macgregorandmacduff.co.uk/pages/joyce-young

Perhaps Jo Andrews of "Haptic and Hue" will devote a podcast to this fascinating history but till then, for those non-Scottish readers this link provides a succinct review: : http://scottish-wedding-dreams.com/tartan-history.html
Carol in Denver said…
Born and bred in the USA, I am of solid German heritage. I have no desire to dress in dirndls and peasant blouses. Although German food is available, I prefer Asian and Mexican and Italian and French food. It is somewhat curious that other cultures and eager to be in the business of providing food from their cultures for sale; no problem with cultural appropriation there.
Carol in Denver said…
Born and bred in the USA, I am of solid German heritage. I have no desire to dress in dirndls and peasant blouses. Although German food is available, I prefer Asian and Mexican and Italian and French food. It is somewhat curious that other cultures are eager to be in the business of providing food from their cultures for sale; no problem with cultural appropriation there.
Duchesse said…
Carol in Denver: Thank you; I sense that you are expressing two ideas.
1. Whether or not one wishes to assert one's own cultural identity through dress, food, or any other traditions. (My take is, You do you!) Donald Glover had such a great time with this in the "Atlanta" episode where Van and Earn go to a German festival -Season 1, Ep 4.

2. Whether a culture's sale of their food (via the hospitality industry) is an area of cultural appropriation, which you perceive as bing "no problem" for them. I see the patronage of diners who are not from that culture as act of cultural appreciation. The diner learns about the culinary traditions and customs, whether tortillas or thalis. Here's a short article that describes the difference between appreciation and appropriation:

In the US, this openness and appreciation has evolved over time. I remember my father, a Midwestern American, being derisive and sceptical of what he called "foreign food". Flash forward forty years they were enthusiastically eating ceviche and curries.

Things get stickier when persons of a historically dominant culture open a restaurant specializing in the cuisine of a subordinate culture. Example: White American opens Mexican restaurant. The establishment's message of cultural appreciation for this heritage would need to be front and centre these days. We had our own skirmish over this not long ago:

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