Culture Is Not A Costume

Words by: Jasmine Uitermark-Thaung

Cultural appropriation has been pulled to the forefront of the racism debate recently due to a number of high profile stars uploading snaps of themselves wearing culturally insensitive attire. By donning this sort of attire for aesthetic reasons many of these socialites have become shrouded in negativity, polarising their fans.

Black culture and hip-hop culture are both strongly intertwined and in Amandla Stenberg’s video ‘Don’t Cash Crop on my Cornrows’, Stenberg points out that as hip-hop culture became integrated within pop culture so did black culture, leading to celebrities in the early 2000s wearing clothing and accessories associated with American hip-hop.The high fashion world also uses hairstyles such as cornrows, adopting them as “urban, edgy and cool” while completely disregarding the reason for cornrows and the culture behind them.

Kyle Jenner on the left, Amandla Stenberg on the right.
Kyle Jenner on the left, Amandla Stenberg on the right.

Kylie Jenner recently posted a picture to her Instagram sporting cornrows and received a lot of flack. Derived from black culture, cornrows have maintained their functional status as a way for women of African descent to keep their hair neat whilst also having it appear stylish. So you can imagine how insulting it is to see someone who has not experienced the full extent of black culture wearing cornrows, grills, and other culturally significant pieces simply because it enhances their aesthetic.

Another problematic issue associated with cultural appropriation is that it allows people to pick and choose the bits they like about a culture but distance themselves from the “unpleasant” or “difficult” parts. Notably, many non-African American artists, such as Iggy Azaelea, have been criticised for failing to speak up on the issues that shroud the black identity whilst continuing to align themselves with hip-hop culture.

Azealia Banks, an infamous American rapper, spoke with hip-hop online publication Hot 97 about what she referred to as “cultural smudging”:

“When they hand these Grammies out it says to white kids, ‘Oh yeah, you’re great, you’re amazing, you can do whatever you put your mind to’ and it says to black kids ‘You don’t have shit, you don’t own shit, not even the shit you created for yourself’ that makes me upset.”

The fact that culture is not a fashion accessory is something we’re still sadly having to drill in. As numerous festivals graced the country this year, more notably Splendour in the Grass and Groovin’ the Moo, hoards of bindi-adorned punters fully clad in bohemian festival outfits seemed to materialise out of thin air. Watching people flail around to EDM, blind drunk, while wearing American Indian headpieces is cringe-worthy… so here’s a three-step guide on how to avoid cultural appropriation:


  1. Cite your cross cultural influences. Appreciating a culture and appropriating a culture are two very different things. Have a serious sit down at your laptop and familiarise yourself with the history of how the items you’ve become so fascinated with came to pass.
  2. Don’t adopt a cultural piece for its aesthetic. If you don’t understand the cultural significance, HANDS OFF! Bindis and henna have significance, you going to Splendour is not significant.
  3. Stereotypes aren’t your toys, don’t play up to a stigma. A few years back Katy Perry used the geisha trope in her performance for ‘Unconditionally’ at the American Music Awards. Her constant bowing and donning of the ‘yellow face’ showcased ignorance not understanding.