Cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation?

Three Journalism BA students report on the special event organised by the School of Computing and Digital Media and The Cass.

Date: 30 January 2018

By Aaron Patel, Ryan Evans, Cheryne Fourdrigniez, Journalism BA students

“Tribute or theft? Cultural appropriation and fashion.” That was the theme of London Metropolitan University’s debate on Tuesday 29 January, discussing the nature of cultural appropriation and how fine the line is.

A panel of four experienced fashionistas answered questions from students and shared their thoughts on this controversial topic. They called on designers to collaborate with local artists and artisans around the world, rather than just taking them for their own use.

The event was part of the London Met Journalism department’s newsweek, where students produced magazines, online stories, and TV and radio programmes. They reported on the event, Tweeted, took photos, carried out interviews and did everything a journalist is supposed to do.

Ethical journalist Marion Hume, fashion blogger Toni Tran, Teleica Kirkland from the Costume Institute of the African Diaspora, and fashion designer Elizabeth-Yemi Akingbade held a heated discussion on topics ranging from designers using cultural appropriation for popularising their brand, to celebrities ‘blackfishing’ for more money and fame.

On the topic of ‘blackfishing’, panellist Teleica Kirkland said: “Have the Kardashians impacted this and influenced this? Yes, I think they have. Do they care? No, they don’t – because they’re making money and their whole brand is about making money and about being able to be popular, and they’re always going to have people following them and people who don’t.”

‘Blackfishing’ is the term for white women posing as mixed race or taking aspects of a different ethnic culture and either adapting it for their own use or rebranding it as their own.

Toni Tran said: “The Kardashians, where to start? They’re going to have followers regardless, like she (Kirkland) said, it’s a money-making opportunity for them.”

Blackfishing within the Kardashian-Jenner family came to light when one member was seen in Dubai wearing a niqab, and later a traditional Native-American headdress as fancy dress. Kim Kardashian was also seen at the MTV Movie and TV Awards with cornrows.

A major element in the debate was the role the Western world has played. The idea of embracing another culture can now be very controversial. The fine line between celebrating and insulting another’s culture has become so thin, that it can be seen as repressive.

Tharushi Hettii in Affinity Magazine wrote: “Cultural appropriation is a major issue for young people of colour living in Western countries because, for many of us, those pieces of clothing or those hairstyles or those religious symbols are some of the few connections we have to our heritage.”

Cultural appropriation is especially frowned upon in social media. One exception is weddings. Tran told of going to a friend’s ceremony in Pakistan and wearing traditional dress to embrace and celebrate local customs.

Cultural appropriation has also been seen over the years on the catwalks of famous fashion houses such as Gucci using a white, non-Sikh model wearing a turban.

“This is so deep because as humans, especially as people in the West, cultures have not looked upon anyone else with favour,” said Kirkland.

With social media becoming such an influence on fashion policing and Instagram becoming a powerhouse of appropriation within Western culture, there is now a blurred line on what is deemed acceptable for people to wear or not.

But the panellists agreed that people should have the freedom to appreciate fashion from different cultures.

“I think there is a moral police, now in the age of Instagram calling out all the time,” said Marion Hume. “Is it always a good thing? I think there are moments when fashion is about joy, and that you should be able to go out of the house without fear or offence.”

An image of the panel at the tribute or theft

The event was organised by the journalism team from the School of Computing and Digital Media in conjunction with The Cass.

Following the debate there was a runway show from our talented Fashion BA students from The Cass.