Cultural Appropriation and the United States of Privilege
The first example and one that gained popularity two years ago is Gigi Hadid appearing in Vogue Italia wearing multiple different shapes and colors of afro wigs, which is hair traditionally worn by African Americans. The modern afro hair style became popular towards the early 1960s with the rise of the Black Power movement. Before this time period in the 1950s, the only hairstyle for respectable woman of color was to have tightly-trimmed straight hair. Therefore, in the 1960s the Black Panthers rebelled against this by keeping their hair as unkempt and as large as possible. This new radical style became a cultural symbol of black power and pride. The afro is still seen today as a symbol of profound black pride and pays homage to the efforts of the Black Panthers and Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Now onto Gigi Hadid. Hadid, born and raised in Los Angeles was born to a Dutch-born American mother and a Palestinian American father, which makes her primarily Caucasian with some Palestinian in her as well. The dichotomy between the culture of the afro and the culture of Hadid greatly shows why this situation is offensive and more importantly while it is considered cultural appropriation: she is a Caucasian woman taking a cultural icon of black pride and using it as a fashion statement.
This case is also a perfect example of systemic racism and white privilege. Systemic racism is the theory that the United States was founded as a racist society and therefore, racism in interwoven into all facets of American society. Black people have been treated poorly in the United States since the very beginning of our nation. America was founded on the basis of racism and soon enough, slavery became interwoven in the fabric of society. Therefore, white Americans still do hold on to some of this same internal racism, although not quite as outspoken about it as our Founding Fathers were. White privilege also becomes evident in this case because it shows the kind of mentality that she can wear whatever she wants and represent whatever culture that she wants and no one can get offended because she is white. However, if a magazine spread were to be released depicting a black person dressed as a white aristocrat from the South, many white people would be extremely offended. White privilege is a term describing the set of advantages that benefit white people every day due to the fact that they are white.
This incident could be extremely harmful toward Gigi Hadid’s image in the eyes of the black community as well as the rest of the modeling world, as this case could make Hadid seem extremely privileged and racist, which would greatly be a detriment to her brand. This case also reflects negatively on the Vogue brand as the magazine had to have known that the afro was a symbol of black pride, yet allowed a white woman to wear the wig anyway.
Another example of cultural appropriation in modern culture is Katy Perry’s performance of her hit song, “I Kissed a Girl” while dressed as Cleopatra surrounded by dancers dressed as mummies with large padded breasts and butts. Perry sported a purple leotard containing an ankh and the eye of Horus. The ankh, also known as the Egyptian cross is a symbol shaped like a cross with a loop on the top instead of a top arm. It represented eternal life and signified the highest attainable level of wisdom and insight and also represented fertility. Many hieroglyphic paintings show the bestowment of the ankh from the gods to the king at the time, which signified the transfer of immortality. The Eye of Horus, also known as the “all seeing eye” was usually worn as a protective amulet and believed to have healing and protective power. The symbol is divided into six parts, each part signifying one of the six senses: smell, sight, thought, hearing, taste, and touch. In ancient Egyptian religion, Horus was a sky god whose eyes were known to be the sun and the moon. One Egyptian myth depicts Horus giving one of his eyes to the god of the underworld, Osiris as a gift to help him rule the underworld. In the myth, Osiris actually ate the eye and as a result, was returned to life. The eye then became associated with life and resurrection. It is clear that these two symbols: the ankh and the Eye of Horus were of the utmost sacredness and respect in Ancient Egyptian culture.
On the other hand, Katy Perry was born in Santa Barbara, California to two Pentecostal pastors. Perry has Irish, German, English and Portuguese ancestry, which undoubtedly makes her Caucasian. She often travelled across the country with her parents while they set up Protestant churches and practiced her religion with them regularly. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Perry knew the symbolism and meaning behind the ankh and the Eye or Horus and it is even more unlikely that Perry practiced the religion of the Ancient Egyptians, which is why her wearing the symbols on a latex leotard while seeing about how she kissed a girl is considered cultural appropriation: Perry, who has never practiced Ancient Egyptian religion is “borrowing” two major icons for that religion for no apparent reason. Another controversial issue with this case is the mummies that were dancing alongside Perry in padded fake breasts and large butts. Mummification is a process used in many different civilizations to preserve corpses. In most cultures, it involved dehydrating the body in order to keep them from rotting in the found. Eventually, mummification became very much rooted in Egyptian religion as rituals for the dead often included mummification. The Ancient Egyptians viewed mummification and preserving the body as a step towards ensuring a well-lived afterlife. Burial then became a status symbol and the elite were often buried in beautiful and elaborate tombs, such as pyramids. The sacredness of this practice contrasted with the display of the dancers themselves dressed as mummies with fake breasts and a large butt also shows why this case is another example of systemic racism, structural racism, and white privilege.
Structural racism states that society is so structured in a way that gives whites the advantage while simultaneously disregarding and providing disadvantages for minorities. In Katy Perry’s case, she subconsciously assumed that because of her white privilege and advantage in society, she would be able to not only represent a culture that was not her own but also put an identity on the culture that was not true: that mummies in fact had large fake breasts and butts, that Cleopatra wore a skintight latex leotard with the ankh and Eye of Horus on it, and that it is okay to oversexualize Ancient Egyptian culture. This portrayal impacts Katy Perry’s own brand as it depicts her as ignorant and not respectful of cultures that are not her own. It also emphasizes the notion that many White Americans in today’s world still have implicit attitudes or lack thereof towards different minority groups and cultures.
The two examples provided prove that even today in what is thought to be known as a more “open-minded culture,” racism, ignorance, and privilege are still very much prevalent. The best way to combat this is simply through education. It is of vital importance to teach others about cultures other than their own so that they are more knowledgeable about the symbols and icons of these cultures and therefore less likely to portray them in a way that they are not meant to be portrayed.