Cultural Appropriation in Alternative Subculture: Does it Matter?

Oppression. Discrimination. Various isms. With our expanding online population and large access to information, the social justice dictionary has become an open bar. In thoughtful conversation, this helps to better understand modern society and promote activism. But, sometimes words are just blankly misused. Among these terms is a House Special: Cultural Appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the adoption of one or several elements from a culture that is not your own. The term usually has negative connotations. While many people see “cultural appropriators” as typically Caucasian, any culture can borrow or take from another. Although it is a very real problem, the term is often used as an accusation exclusionary of mixed race people and transracial* (see below) adoptees. But, what about cultural appropriation within a group that declares individual identity to stray from the mainstream? What will be put in question here is its meaning and role within alternative subculture.

What belongs to who?

When cultural appropriation is brought up, a recurring theme is the dread dilemma. Often associated with the Rastafarian movement, dreadlocks have gone beyond their origin. Dreadfalls or cyberlocks, such as the ones worn by Amelia Tan, are popular in several subcultures. However, there is a common misconception as to the birthplace of locks. They began entering the mainstream in the 70s, as reggae rose, but were originally found in multiple religions and spiritualities including Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity. The hairstyle being quasi-universal, it belongs to no one group.

Another situation can be found with the mohawk. Despite the name, the template punk mohawk we know today was derived not from Mohican people, but the Pawnee. Additionally, mohawk styles are historically present within a myriad of societies. For instance, the Cossacks, an East Slavic people, shaved all but a large lock of hair called a chupryna**. Entering the mainstream, the mohawk was worn by American GIs, “The Filthy Thirteen”, under the guise of Jake McNiece of Choctaw descent. Even in the 1950s some teenage girls adopted the haircut. Tracing back to the Celtic Iron Age***, there are a variety of “hawks” derived from different cultures. It would thus be difficult to argue that all mohawks are appropriative. On the other hand, borrowing certain traditional elements for purely aesthetic reasons can be seriously damaging to the target, particularly for oppressed groups. (think hipsters in headdresses).

“There isn’t just one Native American culture. There are hundreds. And there are millions of Native people. And we’re being ignored. We’re being told that we don’t have rights over how we are represented in mainstream America. We are being told that we should ‘get over it’ – but the people who are saying this don’t even know what the issues are. When people know of us only as a ‘costume,’ or something you dress up as for Halloween or for a music video, then you stop thinking of us as people, and this is incredibly dangerous because everyday we fight for the basic human right to live our own lives without outsiders determining our fate or defining our identities.” – Metcalfe (Turtle Mountain Chippewa from North Dakota)

Like the mohawk, some cultural elements have become associated with alternative people. In fact, subcultures form through cultural borrowing. European Lolitas followed the Japanese, who themselves were inspired by the 18th century European Rococo movement and the Victorian era. Where music is concerned, several metal bands name African American R&B musicians as their primary inspiration. Exchange is a natural part of growth. Without it, alternative culture would have no flow.

Where is the line between appropriation and appreciation?

The real issue is when a specific cultural element incites discrimination against one ethnicity yet praise for another. A perfect example is the recent conflict between celebrities Kylie Jenner andAmandla Stenberg. Stenberg called out Jenner on Instagram for donning cornrows (a typically black hairdo) while failing to “use her position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards her wigs instead of police brutality or racism”.

“The line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is always going to be blurred, but here’s the thing: appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they’re partaking in.” – Amandla Sternberg states in her video Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrose.

Appropriation goes beyond the monochrome. An atheist would probably not wear a burka. Yet, many atheist Goths wear crosses. The latter will offend some, while others might dismiss it as a Gothic stereotype. What may not affect some might offend others.

Simply put, there is more to the subject than what you “can” and “cannot” wear. Personal background, surroundings and current events all come to play. When it comes to cultural appropriation, one must consider the individual. For within culture, is identity. You can take to sell a Self, or you can be inspired to build your own.

*Transracial designates adoptees that accept their own background, but are in a family of a different race. Read more here.

**Such as the one worn by Dmytro Vyshnevetsky.

***The Clonycavan man (392-201 B.C) is believed to have had the world’s first mohawk.

Images courtesy of Cantersmanima, Hallonfrisk and Glitterandfrills. These folks are featured in a positive light. Please be civil in your comments.

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8 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation in Alternative Subculture: Does it Matter?

  1. Hey Dana! I was wondering why a lot of your links in this post are crossed out or redirected oddly? Was it intentional? If not, is there a problem with the sources? This was an amazing piece by the way! Thank you for such an insightful post!!!!

    1. Hey Grandin! Some of the links on the blog broke when I migrated it to a new platform. I fix them manually so I’ll take a look at this one next. Good question and thanks for bringing it up!

  2. Hi Dana! I was very into gyaru fashion years ago. Knowing that these Jgals took inspiration from the West to create their trends and rebel against traditional/societal norms, is an American ‘culturally appropriating” a subculture that’s based mainly off of Western influenced pop culture and current dress, or is it so because it happens to have a stronger foothold in Japan than America?

    Your thoughts on this?

    1. Hi Lisha! A bit of a late reply… but extremely interesting question. I was actually in the middle of researching the history of gyaru for another post. I really only skimmed the surface on this as cultural appropriation is an incredibly controversial and complex subject.

      From what I understand much of gyaru was extracted from American series and media like Baywatch and Californian culture. I honestly find it is primarily a comment on femininity using interpretation more than appropriation. If an American is part of the gyaru subculture, it would be hard to call this “cultural appropriation”. It is similar to gothic lolita in that it draws on theme and creates a subculture around it. If anything, it would be like an American parodying their own country (Isn’t that the point of subcultures anyway? Social commentary?).

      To reiterate, what I find most compelling about gyaru is its rejection of beauty norms which were especially present in the 90s. I think the debate around cultural appropriation can veer towards the extreme, to the point where we confuse it with cases of appreciation that may be challenging our current system.

      I hope that answers your question. Let me know your own thoughts!

  3. A very refreshing article about a rather controversial and not always black-and-white subject that many people have taken into wildly racist territory.
    I agree with pretty much everything said here.
    I sincerely hope that as the world grows closer together, humanity can outgrow barriers such as having to identify by “race”, “nationality” and “gender” and so on…. Sadly with things the way they are in America nowadays, it seems like the western world is returning to a pre-Civil Rights mindset and the barriers seem erected much more firmly than before 🙁

    1. Thomas, I know this response is late and you may not see it, however I’m going to say it. When you have an issue with how one identifies themselves by the labels they have given to themselves (such as race, gender, and nationality) is more a reflection on yourself. If the negativity is taken out of race and gender and we disconstruct these social constructs as we should and stop seeing them as “barriers” and instead seeing them as indentifiers and not something to measure a person’s worth then we’ll have come a long way. It’s funny that you say a “pre-Civil Rights” mindset when we never left that earlier mindset, especially not in America. If the last two years have taught me anything is that post-racial was just a silencing tool as well as “color-blindness”.

  4. To me it seems like the worse out of the sub groups is “Tribal goth”. The number of native war bonnets or variations being worn solely for fashion or the cherry picking of still existing indigenous cultures (such as people throwing on traditional face paints from either aboriginal Australian people or more often than not any Sub-Saharan African face paints) and then mashing it together with other parts of a culture they conveniently find attractive is a major problem given current and past events today. While yeah sure, live out your gothic belly dance style, but please don’t take significant parts of cultures that have been targeted by so many and treated more and more as a spectacle or some weird primitive pulp fantasy just so you can dress up

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