5 Trends That Are Actually Cultural Appropriation

The term "cultural appropriation" is bandied about a lot these days — largely when a fashion line or a famous person plays into a look or accessory that had its origins in another culture and pays no attention to what it means or where it comes from. Miley Cyrus' alleged appropriation of African-American culture has been one of the biggest such talking points recently. For instance, Nicki Minaj raged against Cyrus cherry-picking of black culture in The New York Times. "If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us. You shouldn’t not want to know that." And that's one of the key problems with cultural appropriation: It uses other cultures as cute accessories, rather than real things with meaning to real people.

One famous case of cultural appropriation is the Native American feather headdress, which is now banned at several festivals around the world — and woe betide any starlet who thinks it's "cute" to pose in it on Halloween or Instagram. (Yes, Kardashians, this means you.) But this stuff still runs deep: Even Victoria's Secret sent Karlie Kloss down the catwalk in a tone-deaf "Native American" getup in 2012. So you know that's out of bounds. But what about other cultural artifacts?

Basically, the key question to ask yourself if you're thinking of wearing something religious or ceremonial is: Are you part of that culture? No? Then you should probably step away. Just because it's a trend doesn't mean it's in any way OK. Still not sure? Here are five trends that your might not realize are cultural appropriation.


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What They Really Mean: Bindis are purely for women, and they have many different specific cultural meanings in India. Red ones are for married women and symbolize love, while black ones are for widows. They're situated between the brows at the site of the Third Eye, and function as a spiritual reminder for Hindus of their faith and duties at times when they aren't at prayer.

Why You Shouldn't Wear It: Selena Gomez has shown a distinct liking for these in the past year or so, but the increasing appearance of the mark on the foreheads of fashionistas around the world — under the excuse that it's "so '90s" — is not impressing people who wear them as, you know, part of their culture. The hashtag #ReclaimTheBIndi is ruthlessly speaking truth to the hordes of people who apparently think they are a cute hippie accessory instead of a religious tradition.

Bantu Knots

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What They Really Mean: These small buns all over the head may have had their origins in the Zulu tribe in the southern part of Africa. Since then, they've been part of African culture for centuries, and have spread all over the world. They're often used as an overnight style for natural hair.

Why You Shouldn't Do It: Bjork loved them in the '90s, but taking on the bantu knots if you're not a black woman is increasingly seen as pretty culturally insensitive.

Day Of The Dead Makeup

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What It Really Means: The Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos, is a hugely significant Mexican holiday. People come together to pray for dead family members and hold various rituals. Its roots are thousands of years old.

Why You Shouldn't Do It: The proliferation of Day of the Dead makeup on Halloween is beginning to rightfully piss off some Mexican people, who point out that it's a fundamental part of their culture's perspective on life and honoring the dead — not just a pretty, creepy bit of makeup. The "colonization" of Day of the Dead by non-Mexicans is deeply uncomfortable for them. Best to rethink this Halloween costume if it isn't actually your culture.

"Chola" Style

What It Really Means: This is trickier, as it's not part of an established culture or religion, but the look of a very particular subset of society — which does not appreciate being made into weird "fashion symbols" while the reality of their lives is neglected. Chola culture, which involves pronounced eyebrows, lined lips, and a distinctive fashion sense, emerged in Mexican-Americans communities in the '80s and '90s, and was a defiant statement of identity in a very racially charged environment.

Why You Shouldn't Do It: Chola style has shown up everywhere, from the backdrop of Gwen Stefani's "Luxurious" video (oh, Gwen) to Katy Perry's hairstyle in "This Is How We Do" (she should really know better). The real problem isn't that chola style isn't great — it is — but that (often, white) people are either borrowing it without paying any attention to its roots, or are actually making fun of it. That is about 14 types of racist and uncool.

Indian Bridal Jewelery


What It Really Means: Indian bridal jewelry is absolutely stunning, and you can understand why people would want it all over them. But the reality is that the pieces a bride wears at an Indian wedding are all very context-specific, and have unique meanings. Payals, or anklets, are meant to symbolize the arrival of a wife into her husband's house. The beautiful maang tikka, or hair accessory falling down the part in the middle of the hair, marks a specific chakra, and has deep spiritual significance. Even the nose ring, or nath, has cultural associations, depending on where in India it's being worn.

Why You Shouldn't Do It: Indian bridal jewelry, just like henna, is not something you can shove onto yourself out of context without expecting people to be confused and affronted. At best, you'll look like a poser (yes, you, Kendall Jenner). At worst, you'll look insulting (side-eye, Vanessa Hudgens). It's possible to delight in the glory of a particular culture's skill in jewelry-making without, you know, insulting them by wearing it completely out of its intended context as a cute thing at Coachella.