Should cultural symbols be banned from festivals?
“Seeing people who aren’t from that culture dressed in that way, embracing it and understanding it from the food, to the language, to the music. That for me is a truer expression than putting a bindi on at a festival because you think it looks cool.”
What is culture and cultural appropriation?
According to the Cambridge dictionary the term culture means ‘the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time’. But doesn’t that mean that culture changes if that group of people mixes with another and when time progresses? In this case, is mixing cultures wrong or it could lead to fair exchange and the occurrence of a new one?
Fashion designers have been faced with backlash over cultural appropriation numerous times in the past few years. Dior has used Jennifer Lawrence for a campaign that has been inspired by Mexican heritage, Vogue has presented the top model Kendal Jenner with an afro hairstyle and the list goes on. But the festival scene is different, because a festival provides a safe space to be creative with one’s image and to wear and explore something new.
Nevertheless, festival goers have been publicly shamed for insensitive cultural appropriation. So much so, that some festivals have banned certain cultural symbols such as the American Indian headdresses at Glastonbury, bindis (a coloured dot worn on the centre of the forehead) and braids at Coachella. Festivalgoers would need to reconsider their look if they have chosen to integrate some of those symbols.
Cultural symbols out of context
But why is this the case, why some cultures get more offended than others when an outsider wears a piece of their heritage? Well, the problem is when a person at a festival decides to wear for example braids for a day and this is considered beautiful and creative by society. The situation with black people is different though: often wearing braids is their only choice, otherwise they risk not being accepted from society. There are still schools that ban black people to wear their natural afro hair and in some companies this hairstyle is considered inappropriate.
Some cultural symbols need to be rightfully obtained, for example the headdress is a spiritual item reserved for elders and even native Americans cannot wear it, unless they spend their life trying to earn it. So, imagine the surprise of native Americans when they see pictures of bad imitations on Instagram, when their symbol of strength and bravery is used as a fashion accessory. This can be compared to wearing a jacket with military medals as a fashion statement without having earned them.
Wearing those symbols on festivals and later posting pictures on social media platforms highlights the inequalities between privileged people who can get away with having these symbols for a day to have fun and people representing those cultures who are getting judged for their skin or heritage traits.
Although many people rightfully feel culturally appropriated, we live in an oversensitive society. Often there are cases of cultural appropriation shaming, which are coming not from the culture in question but from people outside of this community. There have been public meltdowns after Katy Perry’s kimono at the American Music Awards and Karlie Kloss’s Japan-Themed Vogue Shoot, however the people who reacted abruptly were actually not the Japanese but white Americans.
The power of music festivals
Music festivals have the enormous power to challenge what is accepted and to make societal changes. So, by embracing other people’s cultures we can switch from appropriation to appreciation. It wouldn’t be easy but there is a way to do it. Appropriation may be defined as ignorance, while appreciation is linked with understanding of the particular culture. The main concern of people who feel their culture has been appropriated is when no credit is given back to the culture from where this symbol has been taken from.
Banning those symbols can be considered as a form of censorship, but the debate goes further than that. Culture is always a part of context and when a particular symbol is taken out of this context it diminishes its value, whilst simultaneously erasing its cultural significance. Meanings depend on respecting the views of those concerned, so what matters is the subject of appropriation – the person whose traditions are being used.
The most sensitive cultural symbols need to be prohibited at music festivals, but not all symbols are that obvious, for example some patterns are derive from movements or tribes. In this case, the best way for a festival goer to proceed is to try and educate themselves. This can be achieved with asking questions to the vendor of clothing/ accessory or a simple Google search can show an item’s origin. Then it is up to the individual to decide of it is appropriate to incorporate this symbol into their festival outfit and how to show appreciation for this culture, rather than appropriate it.
What can event manager do?
What festival event managers can do is to familiarise their customers with this sensitive topic. This can be part of the pre-event production and it can be incorporated into the purchasing process and information about cultural appropriation can be its own section on the website. This information page can include trends that may be considered offensive and most importantly explain why this particular symbol is important and the reason why it may be inappropriate to wear it as a fashion fad.