'A number of celebrities have come forward this week to apologise for cultural appropriation.' Jasvir Singh - 05/11/16
Thought for the Day
A number of celebrities have come forward this week to apologise for cultural appropriation. In an interview on Radio 1, Lily Allen said she'd been 'guilty of appropriating' black culture in a music video where a group of women were twerking behind her. Meanwhile across the pond, the Hollywood actors Chris Hemsworth and Hillary Duff both apologised for fancy dress outfits involving Native American headdresses.
However, it's not just established celebrities who've been in the spotlight. In this year's X-Factor, one of its acts, a white female rapper with a seemingly exaggerated persona has been accused by one columnist in the Guardian as being a 'modern day black-face'.
There's often a fine line between appreciation of a different culture and appropriation of certain traditions divorced from their authenticity. It's that uneasy feeling of an imbalance of power, of being laughed at or misunderstood that people find most offensive, and not necessarily just the borrowing of traditions. Laurence of Arabia being dressed in a Bedouin outfit is seen as a respectful homage, whilst the Olympian Louis Smith who was caught on film mocking the Muslim call to prayer has been given a 2 month ban from British Gymnastics.
As a Sikh, my turban is the equivalent of a crown and an integral part of my identity, but it doesn't mean I view non-Sikhs wanting to wear one as cultural appropriation. Many Hollywood stars have worn them as elegant headgear over the years, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins. The artist Snoop Dogg went further by wearing one with a traditional Punjabi outfit in a bhangra-hip-hop video. If the turban is worn respectfully by an individual, then it can only be a positive thing.
A few years ago, I was travelling in India with my best friend from high school, and our final destination was Amritsar, home of the Harmandir Sahib or the Golden Temple. On the street leading up to the holiest of Sikh shrines, we stopped at a fabric shop and my friend chose a turban he wanted to wear. He sat down on a chair and I tied it on for him as a small crowd of onlookers gathered to watch a white man with stubble slowly start to look like a turbaned Sikh. At the Harmandir Sahib, somebody came up to my friend and asked whether he'd converted to the faith. My friend replied that he hadn't, but that he was a 'friend of Sikhism', in much the same way that the Tenth Guru told Sikhs to recognise the whole of humanity as one.
Cultural appropriation is a definite problem, but we need to distinguish it from appreciation and respect of the 'other'. If we don't, the risk is that people who are genuinely interested in other cultures will withdraw in fear of offending others, and the sense of misunderstanding or mistrust between communities will only grow.