Updated: Apr 30, 2021
Last week, I took the first step towards building the sustainable wardrobe of my dreams: cataloging everything I already own!
I am now in the process of determining which items I no longer desire and how I will pass them on as responsibly as possible. One thing I can say, is that donating them will be my absolute last resort. (More on this soon!)
During this process, I came across an article of clothing that my grandmother gave to me, that I love, but that I have never worn.
The reason I have not worn this item is because— it is a perfect example of the most problematic form of cultural appropriation...and racism.
Why Cultural Appropriation is a Problem?
I know that these days most of us are fairly familiar with this term. In this article I am most specifically referring to items made by white designers that come from cultures to which they do not belong.
Let’s take a minute to explore it a bit further.
Below is an excellent excerpt from Emi Ito’s Open Letter to white Makers & Designers Who Are Inspired by the Kimono and Japanese Culture that describes it. I highly recommend reading her entire article!
“Cultural appropriation is a form of white supremacy that perpetuates a colonial legacy because a dominant culture takes from a less dominant culture by cherry picking desirable or profitable aspects of the culture for personal gain, whether it be monetary, social, or both-- while members of the origin culture get marginalized and even discriminated against for the same cultural markers.”
As a result of racism, colonialism, and white supremacy, white-led work, with more access to both monetary and perceived social capital, is almost always more visible to the public than BIPOC-led work.
This remains true when white designers appropriate (steal) or are “heavily inspired by” the traditional and cultural clothing of BIPOC peoples in the North and global South.
We as consumers are therefore far more likely to see and purchase appropriated pieces from white-owned businesses than originals from the ingenious creators, artists, designers and carriers of these heritage designs— perpetuating the violent systems of white supremacy AND the growth of white wealth at the direct expense of Black and Brown people.
The most important step in ending exploitative cultural appropriation?
White designers must stop culturally appropriating.
Sure, there are some nuances here but overall, designers need to ensure that the designs they take do not come from oppressed and BIPOC peoples.
My Racist, Culturally Appropriated Jacket
But what about the clothing we already own?
Well.. let me tell you about my racist jacket.
Here, it is.
You can see that on the jacket are caricatures of Native American people— an image we are all too familiar with in the United States. My former high school just voted *last year* to remove our racist caricature of a Native American logo, the “Raider”.
When I originally considered taking this piece from my grandmother, I asked her where she bought it. She proudly told me that she had purchased it directly from an Indigenous-owned store on a trip to Santa Fe.
She was so sure. And I actually believed her, but as I took a closer look and reflected, I realized that I still could not rightfully wear this as a non-indigenous person.
Here's a closer look...
Now, I do want to mention that for many Black Americans, wearing indigenous pieces feels natural. Most of us grow up with our elders telling us the stories of our indigenous great-grandparents. They remind us constantly of our indigenous heritage.
While some of this may be true, I do not identify as an indigenous person and do not feel that I have the right to wear their traditional clothing. I am completely unfamiliar with their practices, purposes, and realities and therefore do not in any way claim these cultures as my own.
But, upon further investigation. there was an even bigger problem.
I learned that this piece was not in fact created by Native Americans, but instead a white designer.
The epitome of cultural appropriation.
So I was left with a dilemma.
How do I deal with this explicitly appropriated item...sustainably?
What Can We Do With Culturally Appropriated/ Racist Pieces?
The problem is that selling these items only means ensuring that they will continue to perpetuate the violence that is cultural appropriation. Donating them means that eventually, you may very well be burdening the exact same cultures from which they are taken with your insensitive trash.
So is are my suggestions:
#1. Don't buy them.
I know that this is cheating because we’re talking about what you already have. But seriously, never again buy a culturally appropriated item. We know better now so let’s do better.
#2. Upcycle these articles of clothing into new pieces.
Here is a picture of my jacket now. I tried to do what I could to remove the caricatures. It was hard! As you can see, it didn’t work perfectly. I am sure I messed up the leather a bit but I don’t care. I couldn’t look at those pictures any more!
I have decided that for now, I will continue to keep my jacket, but not wear it, until I can either...
a) hire an Indigenous artist to paint over what is currently left
b) upcycle some other leather to replace these sections.
Whether it’s a pillow, a quilt, a face mask, these items can be repurposed into items that do not perpetuate oppression.
And yes, upcycling these items may be expensive if you are not planning to sew them yourself or time consuming if you are. But every item we purchase is so much more costly for the planet and, far too often, devastatingly so for the people who make them.
I can only hope that this hassle alone, not to mention the violence and oppression caused when we steal from the sacred heritages of BIPOC, will encourage us to NEVER EVER purchase appropriated items again.
This process has shown me even more how inherently unethical and unsustainable culturally appropriated pieces are for everyone.
But most importantly for the cultures and people from which they have been stolen.
I would LOVE to hear your ideas for what else we can do with appropriated items.
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