Appreciation vs. Appropriation

There is a fine line between appreciating different cultures and disrespecting them

Yejean Kim

At a Washington Redskins game on Nov. 2, thousands gathered in a protest against the team name, which it has held since 1933.

After I read the Associated Press article on this event, I quickly succumbed to one of the most terrible habits I have: reading the comments section. Whether it’s to laugh at the dregs of the internet or some kind of masochistic game I’ll never know, but one in particular caught my attention. A man said something to the effect of, “If Redskins is offensive, than shouldn’t the Vikings team name be considered offensive too?”

My reply would read something like this: “Dude, no. ‘Redskin’ is a term with a complicated etymology that is now considered a slur. The Vikings were a group of Scandinavian warriors. It’s not the same thing.”

But I didn’t.

Anyway, this got me thinking, which of course led me to think of Coachella, because all things lead back to Coachella. For those of you who don’t know much about music festivals or “fashion bloggers,” Coachella is the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, annually held in Indio, California. It’s an opportunity for people to see some great bands, cool art, and walk around in indecently short denim cutoffs—guys and gals—and, unfortunately, Native American headdresses.

These headdresses are also known as war bonnets, and hold a great cultural, spiritual, and political influence for Native Americans, specifically Plains Indians. They were traditionally worn in battle and by men who had earned great respect within the tribe and are now used for ceremonial occasions.

However, they’ve also had a new, disheartening usage of late: little more than hats for your run-of-the-mill, drugged up festival attendee or “edgy” and “alternative” pop star (Lana del Rey, Pharrell, and Ellie Goulding to name a few). So what does this mean? Why is such usage offensive? I mean, isn’t it just some hipster thing?

The answer, I think, lies on the line between cultural appropriations versus cultural appreciation. Although the boundaries between different cultures are constantly blurring now, it doesn’t mean that a certain level of respect shouldn’t be maintained. Wearing something that holds such cultural sacredness to merely accessorize is disrespectful.

Of course, it’s difficult to tell where the line even is. For example, brands such as Lily and Laura or Jen’s Pirate Booty feature indigenous craftsmanship from Nepal and Mexico. However, there is a subtle yet crucial distinction. Such brands simply incorporate some elements of other cultures to create unique products, and these elements are simply aesthetic; they don’t drag down the sacred into the profane.

I can’t fully appreciate the beauty, grace, and spirituality of a war bonnet because I am not a Plains Indian. I can, however, appreciate the intricacy of Nepalese beading or Mexican weaving because it’s gorgeous and, moreover, holds no other sacred meaning. I can make an active effort to appreciate rather than appropriate, and that, I think, makes all the difference.