I have always felt the need to look like the white women on the television screen. I knew that I did not look like them in terms of skin color, therefore I went through a stage of self-hate. I then decided that I could straighten my hair to make it look more normal and like them,” said Iyana Buckmon, an African American exchange student at Anglo-American University (AAU).

Cultural appropriation is a widely controversial term that most people do not understand as its meaning has been twisted by social media and extremists.  The term describes the process of dominant cultures adopting elements of a minority culture, especially for monetary gain. While this may sound like an equal cultural exchange, dominant cultures fail to recognize that there is a power imbalance between cultures which makes this process harmful. Appropriation is also mistaken for appreciation, and the difference between the two is quite distinct.

The problem first starts with a lack of representation and making minorities feel ashamed or even criminalizing them for their culture. They grow up thinking their culture is something unnatural or even primitive. Media has a powerful impact on people’s lives. Growing up, minorities do not see their culture or themselves represented positively in mainstream books, TV shows, and movies. They believe that they have to abandon the cultural features that make them distinct from the dominant culture and do their best to assimilate. African-Americans are subject to discrimination or criminalization for their hair. For example, actress and singer Zendaya wore locks (dreadlocks) to the 2015 Oscars Red Carpet where she faced racist abuse from “Fashion Police” host, Giuliana Rancic. Rancic commented that her natural hair made her look like she smells of “patchouli oil. Or, weed.”

While a lack of representation was already a serious problem, then came the mainstream appropriation of minority cultures. A good example was when in 2016, Marc Jacobs held a fashion show where the models wore pastel wigs made to look like dreadlocks. While this may seem like appreciation of a culture, out of 52 models in the show, only 8 were Black.

Brands cannot claim to appreciate and represent a culture without appreciating and representing its people.

“The Fashion Spot” analyzed 236 fashion campaigns, featuring 422 models, in 2016. The data compiled showed that 78.2% of the models were all white, while 21.8% were either Black, Hispanic, Asian or other. Yet, fashion designers and companies will continue to feature clothes inspired by other cultures and call it appreciation, when really it’s for monetary gain. Marc Jacobs responded to the criticism saying, “Funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair”. Jacobs and many others fail to recognize when minorities are assimilating to the dominant culture due to pressure to conform. Black men and women are considered unkempt and unprofessional when their hair is worn naturally, and even get subject to ridicule like Zendaya.

It may seem like a hasty generalization to claim that minorities always assimilate to the dominant culture everytime they straighten their hair. However, consider again the lack of representation in the U.S. If you’re Asian, Black or Hispanic living in the U.S, you hardly ever see your culture or your people being represented on screen. Mass media is one of the largest forms of socialization, and by the lack of representation, minorities will be conditioned to think that the cultural norms for a society are whatever people with fair skin, blue eyes, and blonde straight hair are doing. How can their standard for beauty and culture be objective if they only see one kind being portrayed? The reach of Western media is so powerful that it does not only affect minorities in the U.S.

“There has been pressure [to straighten her natural hair], but I haven’t succumbed to it. We’re exposed to a lot of Western stuff [media] so that’s all that you look up to. Like, it’s only recently that you see people, like my own people, being represented in the media, like Lupita Nyong’o. Then, it’s like, ‘Omigosh she has dark skin, like it’s really dark, and her hair is short!’ It’s only recently that people have started to accept themselves. I did feel it at some point [pressure to conform to Eurocentric ideals] until representation hit,” said Chanda Mwape, an exchange student from Zambia at AAU, who felt the need to look a certain way that was perpetuated by Western media.

India’s top-selling beauty products are skin-lightening creams that include harmful ingredients, like steroids, hydroquinone, and tretinoin, which can lead to health issues, like liver damage, skin cancer, and mercury poisoning. These are the effects of what colonization and media can do to a society.  That may seem like an exaggeration, but the caste system in India was first established when the Harappan civilization was invaded by Indo-European invaders, known as the Aryans, who considered themselves to be above the local population due to their lighter skin and hair. The invasion started India’s obsession with fair skin, and it was only perpetuated when the British invaded. Indian media encourages fair skin to this day.

Most Indians feel pressure to have lighter skin and even get shamed for being “too dark”.  

“Even from my mom, she would tell me like, whenever I got a suntan she would get mad at me. She’d be like, ‘Why are you tan? What happened? What did you do?’ I got bullied for being Indian. They used to tell me I was made out of shit. They made a song about how my mom found me in a trash can,” said Devisha Bisaria, an exchange student from Florida, who is ethnically Indian.

Another component to cultural appropriation is monetary gain. A good example is when, in 2017, ASOS, a British online clothing retailer, appropriated Indian jewelry worn at weddings and parties known as a tikka. The company stripped the jewelry of all of its cultural meaning and background by calling it a “chandelier head clip”. This may seem like a minor issue but consider the fact that most companies will manufacture clothes in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh to keep their production costs low before selling it at high prices to increase their profits. It’s well-known that manufacturers in these countries face terrible working conditions. ASOS has been a part of the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) which promotes healthy working conditions for laborers worldwide since 2009. However, they do not list their suppliers directly online and their published reports on worker conditions are not comprehensive. Also, in 2016, a BBC investigation found evidence of child labor in a Turkish factory that was one of ASOS’s suppliers. ASOS denied the allegations. ASOS is just one of the many brands that outsource their products and claim to be culturally appreciative yet do nothing to actually benefit the people who belong to that respective culture. Where is their representation? Where is their respect? Laborers will suffer to make their own cultural items yet gain hardly anything in return. It’s cruel enough to subject workers to harsh conditions, but then to exploit the very culture that made them subject to racism and colonialism in the first place is another level of corporate greed.

A good example of cultural appreciation is when ASOS  ‒ in a brilliant PR move ‒ released a clothing range called “ASOS Made in Kenya.” The line features bright and colorful prints inspired by Kenya and its culture. However, this range actually benefited the workers that made this line as ASOS not only pays the workers decent wages, but also funds local educational institutes, operates a stitching academy for girls, and supplies the residents with sanitary napkins and rain-catchers. The line is modeled online with an equal mix of Black and White models. Despite the clothing line being a form of an apologetic cover-up rather than ASOS’s own initiative, it is an amazing template for what equal cultural exchange looks like.

Cultural appropriation is not about stopping cross-cultural exchange. Minorities want equal exchange and anyone that says otherwise is operating on a different agenda. It is about understanding that minorities do not have the representation or power for an equal exchange. Brands and media influence us greatly in the way we act, dress, and perceive people and culture. It is their ethical responsibility to represent the people if they choose to represent their culture. It is also the responsibility of ordinary people who hold more power than minorities to use their privilege to empower those who do not have any and to understand the anger minorities feel. Most minorities have been made to feel that their culture is something “exotic” and unacceptable in foreign countries, yet when the dominant culture can appropriate these cultural items without facing similar discrimination, it is frustrating. Minorities were first mocked and ridiculed for their heritage. Now even if their cultural fashion is seen as beautiful, they are still not.