Why is Cultural Appropriation Such a Big Deal Anyway?

This past week, in a twitter campaign that came to be known as #NotHappy, musician Pharrell Williams caught some flak for sporting a Native American war bonnet on the July cover of Elle.

courtesy Elle UK
courtesy Elle UK

Just about immediately, observers complained that he was appropriating a cultural symbol he had not earned and did not properly understand or revere. Williams later issued an apology, writing in a statement, “I respect and honor every kind of race, background and culture. I am genuinely sorry.” But many people, particularly people of Native American heritage, are hurt and offended at the perceived theft of a sacred cultural icon and do not perceive his modeling it to be an honor at all, but a disgrace.

Why is this such a big deal? And why do people cry “appropriation,” even in instances such as this, when Pharrell is allegedly Native American himself?

The real question is: why do celebrities continue to apologize for such incidents by claiming that they only intended to “honor” the culture from which they are borrowing?

To have an informed discussion on the topic, one must understand what cultural appropriation means and why it is problematic. I won’t rehash what hundreds of sources online explain quite sufficiently, but I will explain it in short. First, it should be understood that “cultural appropriation,” a term frequently used in social justice circles, is a bit of a misnomer — the term properly refers to any general instance of cross-cultural borrowing, including such harmless things as trading loanwords or sharing ethnic dishes. Cultural appropriation, in its technical definition, is not only necessary but desirable in a multitude of cases. Sometimes it’s respectful, representing progress and amicable trade. Sometimes, however, it is anything but.

When we talk about Pharrell Williams appropriating the shit out of American Indian culture, we aren’t talking about harmless cultural mixing and intermingling such as an American eating sushi. Instead, “appropriation” in this context refers to a disservice done to a culture and its members by “borrowing,” adapting, or manipulating an aspect of the culture without respecting the significance it holds for the people to whom it belongs. That’s why eating sushi is not appropriative, nor necessarily is enjoying rap music while being non-black. But is getting a tribal tattoo co-opted from an indigenous symbol that carries ceremonial significance? Tread carefully.

The war bonnet is an incredible honor bestowed upon deserving men in many American Indian traditions. It is a symbol of great cultural — even mystical — significance. As many Twitter users made clear in the days following the release of the July Elle cover, the headdress is not to be used flippantly or without solemnity. So when Williams, Native American or no, sported the bonnet in a wholly different context from Plains Indian rite and tradition, people were understandably taken aback. It was not his symbol to redefine or repurpose, nor was it an acceptable homage to American Indian culture. In fact, it was tasteless.


Photo by Jake McCornack


As a person of color with no tangible cultural “heritage” other than generically American, I frequently struggle with the idea of cultural appropriation, as the idea of cultural trade, to me, is incredibly desirable and something that I would like to see much more of, not less of. But it is important to understand the frequently imperialistic roots of cultural mixing; that a dominant culture adopting elements of an oppressed culture can easily be problematic if not approached from a stance of great humility and reverence, and that trying to render something that properly belongs to another culture “your own” is not borrowing, it’s theft. Credit must be given where it is due, and if a person is to adopt an artifact from another culture (especially a less dominant one), they must wholly and openly admit their influence and use it to celebrate the original culture.

It is for this reason that people, understandably, find it objectionable that white artists such as Amy Winehouse or Christina Aguilera have risen to prominence where their similar black counterparts mostly remain in relative obscurity. Critics frequently argue that such artists do not give nearly enough credit to their African-American influences, yet brazenly ride on the coattails of their predecessors’ innovation. The truth is that there is nothing wrong or necessarily appropriative about a White artist singing in a style originally performed solely by Black musicians, and that a plurality of people with different backgrounds performing in a variety of styles should be welcomed, not shamed. But a white (or otherwise privileged) person, by virtue of privilege, must be careful to be respectful of the origins of the tradition they are adopting or else they will be guilty of appropriation. And this is exactly what Pharrell Williams forgot to do when he donned the war bonnet in the July edition of Elle. He forgot to respect the sanctity of the headdress in the eyes of Plains Indian people.

I sometimes hear it said that it’s alright for a person to co-opt a symbol or artifact just so long as they’re somehow related to the group they’re adapting it from. And to say that is to miss the point of offensive cultural appropriation entirely. To claim that Pharrell gets a free pass to wear the war bonnet as a fashion accessory because he is partially Native American is to forget that it’s not about the ethnicity of the “borrower” that makes the appropriation so offensive — it’s the disregard for the importance and meaning behind the item that is the problem. As long as Williams is wearing the headdress without having earned it, without demonstrating that he understands the gravity of such an adornment, it is cultural appropriation. Nothing in his blood can change that. This article succinctly sums up what is wrong with the reasoning behind “he’s Native American, so it’s alright.”

Appropriation is a difficult, somewhat subtle issue. At what point cultural mixing becomes appropriative in nature is frequently debated. In general, it is not the place of an actor to determine whether their action is appropriative, but for the culture being adapted to decide. And if the culture you’re borrowing from doesn’t feel very “honored” by your actions, you may want to think twice. Other celebrities, please take note: If it means something deep or significant to someone else, something which you have taken minimal effort to understand and respect, please don’t reduce it to mere accessory.

Duni Arnold
Duni Arnold is the Junior Editor of Issues for The Flounce and lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her subjects of specialty include women’s issues, race, social justice and policy. On a typical day she can be found oil painting, scribbling music, studying economics and browsing the interwebs on her laptop with her dog Star at her feet.
  • botenana

    I just wanted to pull this out – “And if the culture you’re borrowing from doesn’t feel very “honored” by your actions, you may want to think twice” – you hit the nail on the head with this statement, Duni. You’re absolutely correct. It doesn’t matter if Williams has a native american drop of blood in his body – he has NEVER acknowledged or embraced it up until this point. Therefore he’s not honoring his heritage.

    I also find it telling that Elle didn’t run this cover in the US version, but rather only the UK version. Obviously someone, somewhere, knew that this was objectionable considering our past with Native American relations.

    • http://twitter.com/ashliejefferson Ashlie

      Elle US and UK usually have different covers I think.

      • botenana

        Thanks! I didn’t know if they were like Vogue where sometimes the covers are the same and sometimes they are different based on cultural lines.

  • http://twitter.com/ashliejefferson Ashlie

    Also I feel like every (usually white) American thinks they are “part Native American.” I can’t say whether or not they actually are, but it just seems unlikely. My family says my great grandfather was, but records seem to prove otherwise. It just seems like an excuse to be too lazy to learn about or respect another culture, and they definitely think it’s a convenient excuse in situations like these.

    • http://twitter.com/ashliejefferson Ashlie

      they meaning everyone who is appropriating/being disrespectful not specifically my fam.

    • botenana

      Agreed. The only time i ever hear people talking about searching the Native link is when they are getting ready to go to college – “You know, your great grandparent was Native, you should look into that so you can go to college for free!”

      I’m at the 1/32 level. My family maintains some semblance of ties with the heritage. Does that mean that I get to wear a headdress? NOPE.

      • http://twitter.com/ashliejefferson Ashlie

        Yes. If it’s not your parent (or maaybe grandparent) it has nothing to do with you. And if it IS something you identify with, you would identify with it always, not just when it’s convenient.