Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Fashionable Marginalisation of Peoples

Yesterday I went to the supermarket to buy food. When choosing what to wear, I decided to let myself feel inspired by reading I had done the night before about the Rastafari religion.

Mauritius is home to a very small community of actual Rastafarians. However, Bob Marley, reggae, and ganja are symbols familiar to all Mauritian people, and the Rastafari way of life is appreciated by many who live on my small island. Some are taken in by the peaceful way of life while others take on the fashion as their own, especially amongst the Creole (those of African slave origins). Of course, the music is loved by people of all religions who find it to their taste.

I swear I saw a dude who hung out in my Mauritian hometown who used to wear this same hat!
Image: http://bit.ly/bYfPLO

In this way, the Rastafari religion and culture has permeated and become a part of many Mauritian cultures. It is not a strange thing to see someone who is not actually "Rasta" dress in the colours or in a Bob Marley t-shirt walking around the streets of Mauritius. So, today, with that same spirit and feeling inspired, I wore my "Rastafari" t-shirt emblazoned with a sparkly Ethiopian lion and decorated with the gold, red green and black.

File:Flag of Ethiopia (1897).svg
The Ethiopian Lion is used as a Rastafari symbol as they revered Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian King.
Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Flag_of_Ethiopia_(1897).svg

I accompanied it with my Africa necklace (with black beads and a dark wood pendant of Africa as its centrepiece) and a green headband, and there I was! Totally irie and all so good. I put my red earphones in and went to that supermarket I mentioned earlier. I didn't have a care in the world.

When I was at checkout, the woman scanning my items looked at me kinda funny, then asked me where I was from. She noticed my Africa necklace and Ethiopian lion and was visibly confused. I don't look like I could come from Ethiopia, I suppose, and for all I know, she was from around there. I told her I was from Mauritius, and as is the case with most people, I was met with a blank stare. I first tried to explain where it was, and then instead opted to just say, "We have a few rasta there and we love reggae!"

I am so glad and grateful that she smiled and said, "I like it!" - of course referring to my outfit. The truth is, when she showed interest in what I was wearing, I immediately felt foolish and a little ashamed. I immediately thought of one of my pet peeves and realised I had become what I didn't like.

What I am talking about is the way that "Westerners" take fashion of different cultures, ignore the actual meaning and symbolic nature of these items of clothing, and decide to use it as theirs. I am talking about hipsters wearing the Islamic crescent and star, "hippies" wearing the Om symbol, and the most irritating to me of all: the youngsters and celebrities wearing the ghutrah or, as it is known in the US, the keffiyeh.

That scarf thing is known as a keffiyeh.
Image: http://bit.ly/aJHSLg

For those who do not know, let me just give you a short explanation of what the keffiyeh means to some people: it is a symbol of resistance, it is a show of support for Palestine, it is a cloth used by many Middle Eastern countries and cultures, and it is a symbol of unity of all Arab cultures. It was once used by many races and religions in the Middle East, even Jewish people even though it is now seen as a pro-Palestinian tool.

When I used to see skinny model types in New York City tie one of these around their necks, I would burn with rage. To me, this was disrespect for a whole political movement and area of the world. Apparently, people can appropriate whatever they want in the US and dilute a culture. I saw it as a symbol of conquering. I saw it as proof of pure commercialisation and world domination. Frankly: I did not like it.

Wasn't I doing the same thing when I was wearing my "Rasta" stuff? Even though I was not wearing an item that reminds us of conflict, I was using a symbol that was important and spiritually meaningful to a culture that was really not my own. I may feel kinship for some Rastafarian ideals, but it they are not mine. I may like the music and the colours, but that does not make me immediately Rastafarian. It doesn't give me the right to take what is theirs. I was a mockery of their ideology, wasn't I?

We, as human beings, have been picking and choosing from other cultures for so long. Look at the turban - it has become bastardised. For some, it was just a means of covering the head and protecting it from the sun. For others, like the Sikhs, it was a religious item of clothing that showed the world who they were and their pride for their people. Then, it was a fashion item. Look at it.

Image: http://www.houseofwigs.co.nz/images/gloria%20turban.jpg

Later on, especially now, the turban has become a representation of Islam and Muslims. What a shame. All of those people around the world, from Russia to India, who use the turban in their own specific ways, with their own special fabrics and colours, are completely discounted because of a Western interpretation of what a Muslim "looks like" or dresses. It is all wrong. Is this the road that the keffiyeh and other cultural or religious dress are travelling on? The road to complete, devastating distortion?

I am seriously worried. Where do we draw the line? Sometimes I love wearing clothes that belong to other peoples, not necessarily of my own. I would love to own an African dress from Ghana because I love their fabrics and colours, but I also know that the colour choices are very important to the people who make the fabric. Does that mean that I shouldn't buy the fabric and wear the dress? Can I only buy and wear the clothes of countries I belong to?

But then again...where do we belong? Are we not all citizens of the world? We should be allowing and appreciating diversity, in theory. This is a very important and difficult question indeed that doesn't have a direct answer. I don't know where to draw the line yet. For now, I think I should draw it at religious or political significance. I am not going to wear a keffiyeh for trendy purposes. I will not wear an Om necklace because I do not follow that religion. I will have to think carefully about the Rastafari-inspired top, although I feel the top was made more for fans of reggae music.

If you think that people don't mind others appropriating their culture or religion, think again. This link was posted on Facebook and when I read it, I felt horrified. I had read similar stories before, especially about Native Americans, because their culture has been so openly twisted for popular culture. It still exists in sports logos and Halloween costumes. Actually, I believe Halloween costumes are generally the worst. Look at their "Harem Girl" outfits. They even sexualise culture so shamelessly...

Enjoying a different flavour or culture is one thing. Taking it and changing it for your own benefit, especially for something as superficial as fashion or costume, can be hurtful. It may be meaningless to us, but it is meaningful to someone else. Yes, the woman in the supermarket liked my outfit, but a Rastafarian in another place might have laughed at me for being so ignorant or might have felt that their religion and way of life was being treated like a fashion trend rather than a real spiritual practice. I don't think I want anyone to feel like that.


  1. Um, not at all the same thing. 1) You know about the culture 2) you respect it and were inspired by it. That's not just taking something and putting it on because it's trendy. I think you're over-reacting here. There's nothing wrong with respecting and interacting with another culture through fashion.

  2. I don't know...that's my debate within myself, if that phrase even makes sense :P I wonder if I was actually respecting it in the first place. I kind of felt like I was just appropriating it for my own desire to look "cool" or something. I feel some guilt.