It is an unsettled debate of the 21st century: how much of a problem is cultural appropriation and how does it work? Obviously, white people with dreadlocks are something scary in and of their own right, but what parts of foreign cultures are we allowed to celebrate and in which way?
Fashion and the Exotic
The biggest issue, it seems, stems from the majority of people in the modern western world appropriating cultural elements from the minorities, adopting their vernacular, recipes, outfits, and so on. The reason this kind of appropriation is offensive lies in its portrayal of the minority in question. If you decide to put on a Japanese yukata because it makes you feel cute and exotic, that may make a Japanese person uncomfortable.
That being said, there is nothing wrong with celebrating the culture itself. If you know the history and you fully support and understand the development of the culture and the significance of its distinguishing elements, you should be fine, provided this celebration is done in an appropriate setting.
For example, Macklemore is an American rapper that is aware of the fact that he is white and that his life is not that of most rappers. This does not stop him from making a career of rapping. Wearing baggy pants or sari when you have been invited for a simple cup of coffee, however, is not the way to go.
Does It Work Both Ways?
This is a common argument presented by people who feel that their rights of wearing what they want have been trodden on. This argument goes to ask whether it would be okay, then, to ask various minorities to stop wearing jeans. What we need to understand here is that the Caucasian population in the US roughly takes up more than half of all people in the states. The dominant culture inevitably incorporates some elements of the minority cultures it is in contact with and this is fine as long as this is not used trivially. Besides, it’s not the same to be proud of being Irish, Slav, or Italian, and to be proud to be white.
Sometimes, people will get offended even if there is no reason for it, which isn’t to say that the cultural appropriation in itself is not offensive, but that there are sometimes overzealous protectors of foreign cultures, even when they don’t originate from the place of the culture.
For example, Avril Lavigne faced a public outrage in the US for her music video ‘Hello Kitty’ done in Japan, which her Japanese fans loved. The video was made with Japanese people, but some of Avril’s audience in the States got angry, believing that there are no foreign cultural elements that can be used without being offensive. This is a dangerous mindset that infringes on people’s creativity and expression, particularly in cases when the indigenous culture has no problem with the person in question using their elements.
If you are driving a German car, wearing an Italian suit, and eating Belgian chocolate while listening to reggae, you are fine. Cultural elements between different cultures get mixed all the time. However, wearing a bindi without knowing what it means, or wearing cornrows to be cool should be off-limits. There is some grey area between the two and you may be called out by people who like to be confrontational.