On Halloween people who are aware of cultural appropriation get increasingly squeamish about the slew of “tribal” costumes – Native American headdresses and even blackface. Although Halloween is often blatant in its racist and insensitive displays, cultural appropriation is a regular occurrence in Western fashion, art and media. Recently, Dolce & Gabbana drew criticism after they sent racist “Blackamoor” earrings down the runway. These images are recognizable in the U.S. as “Aunt Jemima” figures and demonstrates blatant insensitivity to their connection to colonialism and slavery.
Approximately 350 million indigenous people – identified as descendants of people who lived in a country before the conquest or settling of dominant groups – live in over 70 countries today. Recognition and protection of indigenous people’s rights is, unfortunately, deplorably low. In Africa, only the Republic of Congo has enacted laws to enforce indigenous peoples’ rights. It is crucial for dominant cultures to respectfully relate to the culture of indigenous groups and for indigenous people to have a voice in contemporary culture.
According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the good news is,
…from community radio and television to feature films and documentaries, from video art and newspapers to the internet and social media, indigenous peoples are using these powerful tools to challenge mainstream narratives, bring human rights violations to international attention and forge global solidarity.
The United Nations recently celebrated the International Day of Indigenous Peoples with the theme “Indigenous Media: Empowering Indigenous Voices.” The goal was “to highlight the importance of indigenous media in challenging stereotypes, forging indigenous peoples’ identities, communicating with the outside world, and influencing the social and political agenda.”
Participants in the UN celebration have developed indigenous media in meaningful ways. They included indigenous leaders from the Americas, Canada and Hawaii who founded organizations such as the World Indigenous Television Broadcasters Network and NativeJournalist.com. The online daily, #Indigenous #Decolonize Daily, is another example of media being used to promote issues that relate directly or indirectly to indigenous peoples.
The cultural destruction that indigenous cultures have experienced in our history of colonialism and oppression cannot be undone. However, empowerment in the media helps minimize the reductionism that indigenous people face today. To use a recent example, high fashion designer Rodarte stole imagery from Australian Aboriginal art for designs in a 2012 fashion show, causing uproar. Not long after that incident, Australia launched its first Indigenous Fashion Week, which featured thirty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander designers and employed a model who is half-Aboriginal. This event is transformative in providing an avenue for the direct creative expression by Aboriginal people rather than have their art “borrowed” by Westerners.
This Halloween, let’s begin conversations with our peers about what borrowing imagery from other cultures actually means.
by Ann Bickerton