3 Easy Alternatives to Cultural Appropriation for Ethical Fashionistas

Photo:   Paul Rivera

Photo:  Paul Rivera

According to Wikipedia cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.


Sounds pretty harmless right? What’s so bad about a little borrowing? Life being life though, it can never be that straightforward. You see, it’s not just a little borrowing. When a dominant culture takes something from a minority culture (i.e. one with less economic, social, and political power), the dominant culture strips the thing of its original meaning. Often taking something sacred and turning it into a meaningless trend. That's a dick move

This is one of the main reasons I love ethical fashion. Instead of appropriating ethical fashion appreciates. It seeks to understand and value the artisan and their culture. Not only do I believe this is the right thing to do. I believe it gives your clothes meaning. Cultural appreciation is all about context and compensation.  When you buy a garment from an ethical brands (like these) you know that the artisan is treated with respect, lives a life of dignity, and is earning a fair wage. That my friends is cultural appreciation at its finest.


What about things that are outside the realm of ethical fashion? Where do we draw the cultural appropriation line? This is where it gets a little tricky. We must tread extra carefully around symbols that hold deep meaning for another culture. Bindis, Native American headdresses, and dreadlocks are all examples of “trends” that trivialize an entire way of life. Just thinking about how that must feel hurts my heart! 


I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re adopting these styles out of love for that culture. Unfortunately, love and good intentions are not everything. No matter how well intended someone may be, they have to consider how their actions are received by those who have a historical connection with the style.


So what the heck are we supposed to do? Well my friends, I’ve put together a quick resource guide for you. Here are 3 things you can do when the itch to culturally appropriate strikes.


Photo: Twin Lens

Photo: Twin Lens

Dig Into Your Own Roots

Every culture honors the same major life events. Birth, marriage, womanhood, death, etc. Instead of taking the traditions of someone else’s culture use it as an opportunity to learn more about your own heritage. The perfect example is the trend of people dressing up as Mexican sugar skulls for Halloween. This tradition is meant for Day of the Dead, which is different than Halloween and very sacred to Mexicans. Dia De Los Muertos is how we honor those that have passed on. Honoring the dead is a tradition that can be found in every culture, so no need to use the Mexican version. Instead of going for a Day of the Dead look, have fun researching what your own culture does to celebrate their ancestors. This will deepen your relationship with your heritage and add value to your life.


Get Involved


If you really appreciate a culture get involved in the community. Go to meetings and events hosted by people from that culture. Shop at business run by people of that culture. Read articles by people of that culture. Support that culture in a way that gives back to them. Do you love rap? Attend a White Lives for Black Lives Matter meeting. Maybe you want to try out the “chola” look. Read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros or follow Latina Rebels on Instagram. Love Asian culture? Check out these fantastic films made by Asian Americans. The possibilities for engaging with the culture you love are endless. Just remember that in the spaces you are a guest and act accordingly.


Enjoy being a spectator


We’re in a time of me me me, but if we really want the world to shift we must make room for everyone. That means people who’ve had the spotlight must take a step back. Instead of this being a bad thing, learn to appreciate the joys of being a spectator. There are so many great things to learn when you allow others to shine. When the spotlight is on someone else we become better cheerleaders and more selfless. We hone our skills of observation, our minds expand, and our energy takes a breather because we’re not having to DO all the time. So sit back and bask in someone else’s glow.

Photo: Suzanna Khorotian

Photo: Suzanna Khorotian

Easy right? These are not hard and fast rules, and of course, every rule is made to be broken. If you’re not sure whether something is appropriate, google it! Even if you have friends within that culture, not everyone has the energy or interest to educate their you. Plus, it just feels weird when someone asks you to speak for your whole culture. By taking the burden on yourself to research this stuff you’re showing your friends that you not only value their emotional/mental labor but are committed to being a part of the solution.

And when you do accidentally cross a boundary (because all of us have room to improve), don’t beat yourself up. Shifting the whole world’s attitudes towards minorities will take time and no one is going to get it right the first time. Instead really take in the feedback and use it as an opportunity to grow.

It sucks to not wear whatever catches our fancy or makes our heart expand, but history has sucked for people of color. The only way to begin to tip the scales towards equality is to focus on empathy and respect. If we approach other cultures with respect, this well-intentioned love will one day lead us to a world where all cultures are valued equally.

And isn’t empathy and respect what ethical fashion is all about? You got this, girl.


Benita RobledoComment