THE CONFINES OF CULTURAL APPROPRIATION: SHOULD WHITE WOMEN WEAR HOOP EARRINGS?

Though aesthetics like bantu knots or bindis are generally accepted as specific to particular cultures, conversations about cultural appropriation continue to expand as more individuals declare their cultural aesthetics. In February of 2017, three Latina students from Pitzer College spray-painted “White girl, take off your hoops!” on a mural wall. Noting the influx of white female students wearing large hoop earrings after Vogue claimed they were the “ultimate cool-girl” accessory of the season, these Latina students stated in an interview that they are “tired” of white women being praised for a style that “black and brown bodies cannot wear” without being looked down upon or called “ghetto” (Euse 2). Not only is cultural appropriation a dominant topic in current cultural discussions, but philosophers are increasingly acknowledging its intimate ties to theoretical concerns of ownership, exclusivity, oppression, and exchange. When discussing cultural appropriation, contemporary writer Zadie Smith urges individuals to acknowledge the complexity of cultural appropriation by evaluating potential instances case-by-case, rather than assume overdetermined rules that rely upon a form of racial essentialism. Though Smith is right that one should not center their evaluation around a restrictive binary of “us” versus “them”, as the earring question demonstrates, there may be helpful parameters to determine patterns of behavior that reliably indicate what is cultural appropriation. Specifically, examining questions of historical lineage, ritualistic significance, and individual knowledge help establish when an act is cultural appropriation and when it is cultural appreciation.

Before delving into potential signifiers for cultural appropriation, I will first attempt to define what it is and why it matters. Historically, oppressed cultures have employed the importance of aesthetics as a form of resistance, unity, and identity. Even when people did not own physical possessions, they could strive to own their appearance. Questions of possession and ownership that cultural appropriation brings to the forefront of conversation today reflect deeper hierarchical imbalances from the history of white people robbing others of their possessions and taking ownership over oppressed bodies. Though slavery has officially ended, cultural appropriation is the logical expression of the white mentality that people of color’s identities are theirs to take and exploit. Smith succinctly states that it is a desire to “get into the black [or other minority] experience,” to “wear” that experience “like a skin” and “walk around in it” (2). Comparing cultural appropriation to showcasing a particular “skin” exposes the performative aspect of the act, as well as its reversibility. Like a costume, it can be tried on, tested, and shrugged off when desired. Much challenging of appropriation—with oversized earrings as well—asserts that the fashion industry and consumerism make minority cultures marketable, so that oppressed experiences becomes a “trend” that entertains the dominant culture for a moment before inevitably being disposed of. It cheapens the value of a culture’s identity as another exploits it. The temporariness of cultural appropriation is part of what makes it so egregious: it forcibly takes a group’s self-expression or identity, then tosses it aside when no longer amused with the trend. Not only is it disrespectful, but since there is no permission granted between one culture and the other, it is also a form of theft.

Oppression in this sense does not derive from being hated but rather from being  “obscenely loved” (Smith 3). Describing appropriation as “cannibalism,” Smith exposes that it is the intertwining of “disgust and passion” as people of color are objectified so the appealing parts of their culture can be consumed (3). Importantly, cultural appropriation does not mandate there can never be cultural exchange. What differentiates appropriation from appreciation is respect and, ideally, invitation: it can be appreciation when an individual understands the developmental history of a style and to whom it should be attributed, and especially when one is invited to partake in that style. To determine whether incorporating an aesthetic element is appropriative, one should examine whether a culture has a reasonable claim of ownership of the style, and if so if there are any circumstances in which another culture can wear it. Parameters that reasonably connote when cultural appropriation takes place examine a style’s historical lineage, importance to a culture’s history, and the knowledge of the individual wearing the style.

Historical lineage reveals whether a style can be traced to a culture that can claim ownership of it. When a dress pattern or housing decoration has been used for thousands of years by one particular tribe or nation, it can be reasonably concluded that tribe exhibits “ownership” over that element of expression and that one should be careful to avoid appropriating their expression of identity. If it has only appeared in the last five years, making a claim that something has integral aesthetic value to one’s culture is more difficult (though not impossible). Hoop earrings, as an example, have been traced back to ancient Sumerian culture in 2600 B.C. The length of time they have been worn by particular cultures does suggest that other individuals suddenly wearing those earrings would be appropriative.

However, ownership does not just depend on a style’s historical duration, but also its uniqueness and exclusivity historically. If only women of a particular age from a specific tribe wear a certain design, then it can be clearly attributed to one culture. If dozens of cultures from across the globe have worn a clothing article such as a long skirt for thousands of years, it is difficult to explain why other cultures are not allowed to similarly express that look because there is no clear link to ownership. A historical examination of hoop earrings reveals its diverse origins, how the style moved from what-is-now Iran to Egypt, Greece, Italy, and even east Asia. Though the earrings have been worn for thousands of years, the prevalence with which it appears globally suggests it cannot be clearly linked to one culture, and so wearing earrings today would not be appropriating them from any one culture because there is no one culture it represents.

Even if a historical origin is impossible to establish, recent history also factors in to how an object is seen or valued by a culture. Though hoop earrings have been worn for thousands of years, in the United States they have primarily been worn by women of color since the 1960’s as part of the civil rights movement against oppressive whiteness (Euse 4). From the “Black is beautiful” mantra in the sixties to the Chola movement in the nineties, large hoop earrings have signified solidarity and resistance amidst people of color. Depending on the lens with which one examines the history of an expression, it can be attributed to a recent cultural development, which would imply that others should not wear the aesthetic without express permission.

Once the origin has been established, and one has determined whether the origin indicates cultural ownership of an aesthetic, one should examine for what purpose it is used in the originary culture. Elements with spiritual significance or ritualistic value can be closely tied to a culture’s conception of value and meaning—if it defines one’s cultural identity, then outsiders should not make light of it by appropriating the style. Available literature does not assert that hoop earrings are directly incorporated into spiritual rituals. However, they are significant in revealing participation within a culture. Writer Ruby Pivet explains that, as an Australian Latina, the gold hoop earrings her grandparents gifted her symbolize her “place in the world,” so that viewing others wearing her identity as a disposable trend is “unnerving and upsetting” (3). Their ability to provide a Latina person a sense of community in a culture that has historically been oppressed and exploited increases the value of that aesthetic, particularly because it is worn as a form of resistance or reclamation.

Since the line between appreciation and appropriation is very ambiguous, it is important to examine the individual as well as the style itself to determine whether that person has a right to express themselves in that way. If the cultural outsider has no knowledge of the originary culture or an outfit’s significance in that culture, then it is appropriation to simply wear someone’s identity as a trend. If there is awareness of to whom a style should be attributed, and if that white person uses their position to speak about the originary culture, then cultural exchange is possible. 

One problem of cultural appropriation that Smith argues and that hoop earrings make clear is the ambiguity of color in dictating cultural membership. Related to the racial essentialism Smith rejects, determining who qualifies as a member of a cultural community is difficult to neatly define with an “us” versus “them” binary. People who appear very pale can still be members of a nation of people with predominantly dark skin. To ban an entire color of people from wearing an outfit precludes the possibility that members of a culture may have differing amounts of melanin in their skin. Some women who pass as white, especially Latina women, are actually identify with the culture their wardrobe represents. One must be careful not to assert someone is appropriating one’s culture without first understanding how that person is connected to it.

By examining history and lineage, purpose, and knowledge of the individual, one can determine when the presence of certain styles is a form of appropriation. Cultural appropriation is certainly wrong—but any cultural exchange itself is not inherently bad, and one must be thorough and precise in determining what is and is not morally acceptable. Thoroughness does not necessitate that any potential appropriative element be examined case-by-case, however: with parameters that evaluate the significance of an item to a culture, one can more generally assert that a certain category of person should not rightfully lay claim to an aesthetic. Since hoop earrings have a varied cultural history and symbolism, there is potential for white women to wear hoops—though I would urge that white women who choose to incorporate this style educate themselves about this accessory’s significance first and attribute the style to its originary cultures. Motivations and color or membership of the individual may complicate individual cases, but broadly speaking an examination of historical lineage and significance will help reveal the boundaries of appropriation and appreciation.

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