Continuing the cultural appropriation discussion

So, a bunch of thoughts have been percolating in my mind since the last discussion on cultural appropriation. Specifically pertaining to two discussions about costumes.

The first comes from one brown woman of woman of (an)other color blog: Halloween: Day of Dead, Day of Red.

The second costume I want to talk about is one that I seem to have seen a lot on websites and over the weekend: the Pocahontas/ stereotypical Native American costume. With regards to the argument “Pochontas is from Disney and I was dressing up as a Disney character” my response is that Disney has racially problematic representations of individuals and helps to perpetuate many stereotypes about particular groups of people. So hiding behind Disney isn’t really going to help justify your costume.

And then from Sara of Sara Speaking: costume appropriation

Since she’s covered in blue paint I can’t say with certainty that this is an example of white privilege, but I definitely think it falls under a more generalised Western privilege, that is, the privilege that says we can pick and choose from the cultures and religions of these other peoples of the world without regard for how the practitioners of those religions and inhabitants of those cultures feel about that appropriation.

All of which furthered my thinking on cosplay, art, and the fine line between homage and appropriation.

And it is with that in mind that I want to talk about cake.

“Cake?!” you say, unable to fathom what my sweet tooth has to do with discussions of cultural appropriation. Yes, dear readers, I want to talk about cake, and I promise to you that it is very relevant to this discussion. Pictures and discussion after the cut.

So, I recently came across the JollyBe Bakery which, I must admit, does some pretty stunning cakes. While perusing their gallery, I was reminded by something I had read in Sara’s thread. To preface her discussion on cultural appropriation, Sara quoted Nicole Magne, the crafter of this costume, responding to criticism:

I also very clearly explained that I created this costume as a tribute, not as a joke. I think the effort I put forth is obvious, and clearly not the result of an ignorant intention. This is art to me, I take it very seriously.

Although I side with Sara on this one, I am not without sympathy for Magne. Art is a hobby of mine, and I take inspiration from a myriad of different cultures. Art movements, like cultures, do not exist in a vacuum, separate and distinct from each other; there has always been, and possibly will always be, cross pollination when an artist is exposed to new experiences and ideas. Where’s the line between homage and appropriation?

Hold that thought and let’s get back to the cakes. The first cake on the bakery site that caught my eye was this one:
Matthew’s cake

It’s called Matthew’s cake and it comes with this description:

Devil’s food cake with vanilla buttercream and vanilla-flavored rolled fondant,
with a painting adapted from a print by the Japanese artist, Toyohara Chikanobu.

It is definitely well crafted and quite a beautiful cake. Like the Kali costume the artist has put in a lot of effort into creating a work of art, but has it crossed the line from artistic borrowing to cultural appropriation?

Let’s now turn to the second cake that caught my eye. I actually find this one to be much more problematic, although it’s a fairly innocuous cake at first glance.
Purva’s cake

Like the cake above, it’s a beautifully crafted work of art. Just looking at the pattern, it seems to be inspired by some sort of embroidery (perhaps those who know more about textiles than I do could identify the source of inspiration just from looking at it).

It’s the description that pushes this into cultural appropriation for me, though:

Golden butter cake with lemon curd and French vanilla buttercream. To match an
embroidered South Asian wedding costume, it is covered with pink rolled fondant
and fondant appliqués and embellished with royal icing.
The roses are sculpted in white chocolate plastique.

South Asian wedding costume. Now, I’ve mentioned this tendency to label the apparel of other cultures as “costumes” back when I commented on Oriental Barbie, but I’d like to highlight something that one brown woman said in her Halloween/Day of Red post:

Many people seem to choose costumes that are outside of normalcy – there is this combination of stereotyping and further marginalizing and often culturally appropriating communities. This is about exercising one’s privilege by dressing up as the Other – so when I see a white woman dressing up in the everyday clothes of someone from India, for example, there is something that allows that individual to feel comfortable in exploiting and appropriating another culture and identity, while also disregarding the history of that community, for a day that is apparently “all about fun”.

Calling wedding apparel from another culture a “costume” (because goodness knows the average Westerner doesn’t call a white wedding dress a costume) is Othering. Western clothes are “real” clothes while non-western clothes are “ethnic costumes” akin to when children play dress up.

The artist reducing a wedding dress to an ethnic costume takes what is a beautiful work of art and turns it into a clear-cut example of what Sara was saying about Western privilege. It’s not an artist seeing beauty and wanting to share that beauty with others that I see; it’s a conqueror taking another culture’s “quaint” customs and using the exoticism to enhance their reputation as “worldly” and “sophisticated”.

And that thought colours the way that I view the other cakes, even though this cake is the only one I found with such a blatantly disrespectful description. All I can think is that, if the artist can’t give enough respect to the traditions of another culture to put their wedding traditions on the same level as Western traditions, how can I give them the benefit of the doubt to have treated their other instances of cultural borrowing with respect and understanding?

In the end, I don’t think I’m any closer to really understanding what is an appropriate way to incorporate ideas and inspiration from another culture into one’s own art, but I am closer to understanding what isn’t.

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This entry was posted in Multiculturalism, Popular Culture, The Evil -ism's. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Continuing the cultural appropriation discussion

  1. Kimiko says:

    So, do I understand correctly that what you’re objecting to is mostly the inappropriate use of the word ‘costume’ (implying a quaint substitute for a ‘real’ wedding dress), and not actually the decorated cake itself? Or do you think the bakery had better avoided this decoration altogether?
    I think that the baker admiring the pattern and colors of a wedding dress and replicating them on a cake is a prime example of artistic inspiration.

  2. tekanji says:

    So, do I understand correctly that what you’re objecting to is mostly the inappropriate use of the word ‘costume’ (implying a quaint substitute for a ‘real’ wedding dress), and not actually the decorated cake itself?

    Yes and no. It’s more fair to say that I believe the use of the word “costume” is emblematic of the problem. It is a representation of how Western culture — which has a long history of conquest by both military and cultural means — reduces the traditions, religions, and other practices of cultures other than its own to nothing but pretty adornment to add spice to the lives of those who appropriate it for (in this case) their artistic pleasures.

    The word is important because it takes the cake out of being simply “the baker admiring the pattern and colors of a wedding dress and replicating them” and into the realm of Western privilege where the baker is using the exotic origins of the pattern in order to sell their product.

    The reason it calls into question the other designs is that the unthinking use of the word “costume” is representative of an underlying treatment of other cultures as the Other. So even though the other designs don’t have such clear markers of appropriation, the baker has lost any benefit of the doubt that they may have gotten by banking on the exoticism of the South Asian wedding “costume” inspired cake.

    There is simply too much history and too much continued imbalance of power between cultures to excuse that kind of treatment as mere artistic inspiration.

  3. Sara says:

    The word is important because it takes the cake out of being simply “the baker admiring the pattern and colors of a wedding dress and replicating them” and into the realm of Western privilege where the baker is using the exotic origins of the pattern in order to sell their product.

    I definitely grok the problematic nature of the word “costume” — that conjures up all kinds of unhappy feelings in me. But (and isn’t there always a but?), I feel like I should add that when I first read the description, I assumed that the cake was created to match the bride’s dress — it’s not the first time I’ve seen it done, though I’m by no means an experienced cake decorator or wedding planner or anything like that. To my mind that excuses the cake itself (though not its description!), but comes with its own host of issues around cultural-appropriateness, i.e. whether the bride is appropriating “exotic” culture to enhance her own W/hite wedding. Without knowing more, though, I guess I’ll just have to leave it at speculation like that.

    And, well, add that I’m glad it’s more colorful … white gets so bland after a while. (And maybe that’s part of the perceived problem; I’ve heard white people complain, frequently, about not having a racial/ethnic identity of their own to hold onto, or to celebrate.)

    It is definitely well crafted and quite a beautiful cake. Like the Kali costume the artist has put in a lot of effort into creating a work of art, but has it crossed the line from artistic borrowing to cultural appropriation?

    I don’t know that I really think of this example as appropriating; maybe because it’s a specific piece of art being recreated in another medium, as opposed to a style, or something bigger like an idea, value, or tradition. Or maybe I’m just too desensitised to seeing painted cakes, I dunno. :p

  4. tekanji says:

    Sara said:

    But (and isn’t there always a but?), I feel like I should add that when I first read the description, I assumed that the cake was created to match the bride’s dress

    Honestly, if it had said “dress” instead of “costume” I wouldn’t have picked it out. I would have gone with the hotei temple cake instead. But, like I said to Kimiko, it was the use of the word “costume” that, for me, took it out of being simply a beautifully painted cake and into cultural appropriation (at least by the the bakery). It’s not the nature of the cake that I’m objecting to, it’s the way that it’s been packaged and sold to the potential consumers that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    I don’t know that I really think of this example as appropriating; maybe because it’s a specific piece of art being recreated in another medium, as opposed to a style, or something bigger like an idea, value, or tradition.

    How is that different than the Kali costume, though? While she did it, in large part, as homage to the deity she was also recreating the artistic representations of the goddess.

    Also, while obviously there are differences between something that is rooted primarily in religion and something that is rooted primarily in art, as someone who has studied Japanese woodblock prints in a small capacity, I have to protest your taking the image out of the greater tradition as if the two are wholly separate entities. There is a long and rich history behind woodblock printing and each print is one part of that history. It’s exactly that kind of stripping the art of its original context and seeing it only as a pretty object to be used as we (the dominant Western culture) see fit that recalls cultural imperialism and makes me uncomfortable to chalk it up to simply artistic inspiration.

    Like I said, I don’t think that it’s necessarily cultural appropriation to make those kinds of cakes, but it does raise questions, especially when the bakery itself has shown in at least one of its descriptions how utterly clueless it is.

  5. Nicole Magne says:

    Hi there, I was pointed to this discussion by through a referring link on my website. I am the artist who created the Kali costume.
    It’s interesting because I was actually on this site prior to publishing my costume online, I was curious to know how my costume might be perceived by others. So, although it may appear that I was acting insensitivity, I knew that I was wading into somewhat treacherous waters.
    The main reason in which I felt that my costume was appropriate for me to wear, is based on a very obvious idea. Which has been overlooked by everyone involved in the discussions about my costume. And since I withdrew myself from the Instructables comment thread, it was not mentioned.

    Kali is a goddess. She is my goddess. Regardless of her mother religion, as a woman she represents a part of me. The nature she represents is part of my nature. I have a connection to her regardless of my “western privledge”.

    So, Am I wrong?

  6. Roy says:

    I have to admit that I’m sort of on the fence about the word “costume”.

    While it’s true that it can often be used in a dismissive/demeaning manner, I also know that that’s not always the case. I’ve seen, and know, people who’ve referred to their own wedding clothes as costumes. It’s not just wedding clothes that I’ve seen called “costume”, either- graduate robes and judge’s robes are referred to as their “costumes” as well. I’ve even heard some of the enlisted men and women around her talk about the “official costume regulations” regarding how and when they wear their dress uniforms.

    That is, I’ve seen it used not infrequently in the sense of “a style of dress, including accessories and hairdos, esp. that peculiar to a nation, region, group, or historical period”, “fashion of dress appropriate to a particular occasion or season”, and “a set of garments, esp. women’s garments, selected for wear at a single time; outfit; ensemble” not just in the sense of “dress or garb characteristic of another period, place, person, etc., as worn on the stage or at balls”.

    Which is not to say that the use is not problematic- I certainly see “costume” used more often in the sense of the things you wear at Halloween than in the sense of “special clothing worn for specific events”- just that I’m not sure that it’s always used in that way, or that every use of “costume” in the way we’re talking about is blatantly disrespectful.

    Given that these cakes were made for specific people, and that I have known people to call their wedding clothes costume- particularly if they were somewhat elaborate or colorful, I’m forced to wonder if the wording was from the person describing the cake on the site or the person who originally requested the cake.

  7. Sara says:

    it was the use of the word “costume” that, for me, took it out of being simply a beautifully painted cake and into cultural appropriation (at least by the the bakery). It’s not the nature of the cake that I’m objecting to, it’s the way that it’s been packaged and sold to the potential consumers that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    Oh yeah, absolutely agree with you there. And what’s more annoying is that the person who wrote the copy probably didn’t think anything of it … of course it’s a “costume,” normal people don’t wear stuff like that! :p

    I have to protest your taking the image out of the greater tradition as if the two are wholly separate entities. There is a long and rich history behind woodblock printing and each print is one part of that history. It’s exactly that kind of stripping the art of its original context and seeing it only as a pretty object to be used as we (the dominant Western culture) see fit that recalls cultural imperialism and makes me uncomfortable to chalk it up to simply artistic inspiration.

    Oh by all means, protest away. I wasn’t aware that there was more to those kinds of woodblock prints; the only bit of research I’ve done on them was in their context as pornographic material that somehow spawned anime (it was for a project in high school, so I’m afraid I’m a bit fuzzy on the rest of the details). *makes note to self*

    How is that different than the Kali costume, though? While she did it, in large part, as homage to the deity she was also recreating the artistic representations of the goddess.

    To be honest, it wasn’t the costume itself that triggered the post so much as the discussion that followed — if it hadn’t been for that, I would probably have taken no further notice of it. I don’t really have time to examine my feelings there right this second (I’m being bad and blogging in class :p) but I’d be happy to continue the conversation when I do have time.

    For the record, also, the creator of the costume has contacted me via my post, so hopefully there’ll be some dialogue happenin’ there soonish :)

  8. Phil says:

    And what’s more annoying is that the person who wrote the copy probably didn’t think anything of it … of course it’s a “costume,” normal people don’t wear stuff like that!

    It seems like the posters on this page are jumping to a lot of conclusions about the writer of the copy. Why not send an email to this person and ask, “Did you mean to imply that the South Asian wedding dress is something that ‘normal people’ don’t wear? Did you mean to establish a sense of ‘other-’ness for South Asian culture?”

    I suggest that half in jest, because I suspect few reasonable people would answer “yes” to either question. But it seems like, on this page, we’re parsing the meaning of a noun here with a nuance that is, to my eyes, both classist and oddly Westernized. I know a great many people, both intellectuals and folks without a lot of education, who think nothing of using a word that has multiple meanings and who assume, rightly or wrongly, that the listener will either understand them or ask for clarification. They might be lovers of words who feel that the many delicate shades of meaning that a single word can have are a beautiful thing, or they might be people who’ve never really given a lot of thought to the different connotations a word can have. I teach many students for whom English is a second (or third, or fourth) language, and these students, too, are likely to use a word based on its dictionary definition, or based on Standard English as opposed to Americanized connotations.

    As has been pointed out above, the _first_ definition for the word “costume” on dictionary.com is “a style of dress, including accessories and hairdos, esp. that peculiar to a nation, region, group, or historical period.” The third defition is “a set of garments, esp. women’s garments, selected for wear at a single time.” both of these definitions are appropriate for a wedding dress, no matter the culture.

    Obviously, words fall into disfavor as time progresses, and in modern times, this has been the result of an increased sensitivity in public discourse. But, as I see it, while the cake-copywriter could have chosen a term more carefully, it’s far more elitist to disparage this person (or even their copy) because we feel we claim the right to determine the “accurate” connotation of the word. It certainly establishes a sense of otherness, that we are enlightened and this person is not.

  9. Katie says:

    Even after NicoleMagne’s explanation, I’m still not OK with the costume. It is a particular belief of those with White Western Privilege (WWP) that things from other countries and cultures can be excised, consequence-free. If you look in the comments section on the original post of the costume, someone IMMEDIATELY brings up questions of appropriation. NicoleMagne, under her name on that site, does the racist two-step of

    1. claiming that her intentions are pure, and
    2. discrediting the argument by attacking the person’s spelling and grammar.

    Frankly, good intentions are NO indicator of whether something is racist. As I’ve read elsewhere on the internet, if intent was a good determinant of guilt, drunk drivers would never be prosecuted. Racists are OFTEN very well-meaning people.

    That said, I do think the costume is a prime example of racist cultural appropriation. The thinking I’m seeing goes like this: “I really really like Kali, especially those aspects of her that I most identify with. I will dismiss the aspects of her I am not interested in, forget that she is simply one of a pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses, and dispense with the culture from which Hinduism was born. I will dress like Kali (or at least one representation of her) despite being told that this is disrespectful, and despite the long history of appropriation, colonization and murder between Western countries and that in which Kali originated. I will dress like (one version of) Kali even though racists in my culture often do the VERY SAME THING to denigrate and make fun of people of color and their beliefs. I will speak of Kali as “my goddess,” calling her “part of my nature,” thereby reducing her to a convenient, pocket-sized entity who manifests at MY convenience.”

    I expect to be slammed by NicoleMagne for insulting her religious beliefs. But NicoleMagne, when your deeply felt religious beliefs mirror cultural appropriation, when you won’t listen to criticisms from concerned people, when the comments on the site where your costume is posted are textbook racism apologies (get a sense of humor, we don’t care if people dress up like OUR gods, her intention is pure, etc.), then I will call it like I see it.

  10. tekanji says:

    Katie said:

    I expect to be slammed by NicoleMagne for insulting her religious beliefs.

    There is no “slamming” allowed on this site. Personal attacks are discourse that shut down discussion and therefore are not allowed.

    I’ve allowed your comment to go through because you are explaining why saying that it’s part of one’s religious beliefs isn’t a shield against racism, but do not continue to incite flames on this site by writing things such as I have quoted above. I have enough to deal with as it is with moderating borderline comments and I don’t want to have to decline a flame by someone who was basically told, “Please flame me!”

  11. Sara says:

    Also, I’d like to add that this whole situation has very greatly upset Nicole — she’s feeling really vulnerable and defensive right now, and isn’t sure how to respond. Can we please all keep in mind that there’s a real, breathing person on the other end of this conversation? More than anyone I can understand the power of anger but right now that’s not going to help matters.

  12. Phil says:

    Frankly, good intentions are NO indicator of whether something is racist.

    If that’s the case, then what’s the incentive for anyone of a “privileged” race to try not to be racist? If I’m interpreting that statement correctly, then it doesn’t matter what a speaker/communicator thinks, or what a speaker means, or what they are trying to communicate. You’re saying that all of the power in determining whether an act of communication is racist lies with the audience.

    As communicators, we all have zero control over how our communication is interpreted by its audience. If you’re going to completely reject what a person meant to communicate in favor of your interpretation (“NO indicator”), then what reason does a communicator have to have good intentions?

    I’d think that, of all places, in the complex social interaction of “How can I avoid being offensive?” one ought to at least get a little credit for trying.

  13. tekanji says:

    Phil said:

    If that’s the case, then what’s the incentive for anyone of a “privileged” race to try not to be racist?

    Uh, because it’s the right thing to do? Because a person who is truly full of good intent would want to do everything they can to avoid hurting another person?

    There’s also that privilege isn’t a fixed divide with everyone either being in one group or the other, but rather an intricate web that is formed by each individual’s privileges and lack thereof. Therefore it’s in everyone’s best interests to fight against the institutions that maintain privilege because, while they might lose a few perks that come with their privileged status, they stand to gain by taking away the disadvantages that they face because of the ways in which they aren’t privileged.

    I’d think that, of all places, in the complex social interaction of “How can I avoid being offensive?” one ought to at least get a little credit for trying.

    But that credit only extends so far, especially if a person refuses to listen to the person calling them out. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: true good intent is measured by a person being willing to step back from their own defensive reaction and think to themselves, “Why did the person call me racist/sexist/etc and what can I do to avoid giving that impression in the first place?”

    I would highly recommend that you read “Check my what?” On privilege and what we can do about it, specifically the Intent Isn’t an Excuse section. It isn’t exactly a privilege primer, but it does explain some important concepts for people who find themselves in discussions about race, gender, etc.

  14. Phil says:

    Uh, because it’s the right thing to do?

    Certainly, people ought to want to do the right thing. But if we’re separating what they want to be doing to be specifically disregarded…

    I guess my focus there was on the “try.” It’s for someone–me, anyone–to convince themself that they’re not racist. This doesn’t always mean that their actions will not be perceived as such. They can respond to that by trying not to be racist; but if this effort is irrelevant, then the incentive to try is removed. It’s much easier to say, “Well, I know I’m not a racist, and I guess I just can’t please everyone.”

    Having read the “Check my what?” article, I think I should ask for clarification on a term or two. In particular, in Katie’s post, she repeatedly referred to the Kali costume using the term “racist.” But Hinduism is not a race, nor is Kali herself. Is that the accepted vocabulary for religious criticism if the religion originated in a non-Western country?

    It would seem more racist, at least by a dictionary/textbook definition, for Katie to tell Nicole, as she does, that her choice of goddess is “off limits” because of her race and background.

  15. Phil says:

    Correction: “It’s for someone–me, anyone” should read “It’s easy for someone-me, anyone.”

  16. Sara says:

    I think I should ask for clarification on a term or two. In particular, in Katie’s post, she repeatedly referred to the Kali costume using the term “racist.” But Hinduism is not a race, nor is Kali herself. Is that the accepted vocabulary for religious criticism if the religion originated in a non-Western country?

    Well, I can’t speak for Katie specifically, but I personally feel the Kali costume is more reflective of colonialism than racism, per se — because you’re right, it’s a religion and not a “race” per se. However, it does have a racial element simply because Hinduism has been traditionally linked to India and brown people. Thus it’s easier to say “racism” because people will get that; “colonialism” just gets them to ask derisively if you’ve started making up words to win an argument. (Yes, it’s happened.)

  17. Pingback: re:appropriate « Sara Speaking

  18. I saw the Thanksgiving “costume” contest on IMVU and it nearly made my head explode. I didn’t want to get into a never-ending circle jerk of explaining the racism of a couple hundred skimpy “Native American” costumes to the site owners or the people who participated in this revolting mass act of er…redface. I probably should let the company know the contest wasn’t appreciated in the least, but I’ve been so damned busy.

    I don’t understand how, as a collection of cultures, humanity could possibly be getting dumber about racism. Shouldn’t progress set in at some point?

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