With Ariana Grande’s Japanese tattoo translation mishap in the news, in which she accidentally got the words “small finger grill” permanently inked on her hand (rather than the words “7 rings,” referring to the title of her most recent single), now seems like a good time to investigate the subtle, yet important differences between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation.
Is it okay to admire and like cultures other than your own? Of course it is. Doing so will likely make you a more worldly and a more open-minded individual. Is it alright to adopt select foreign customs or styles as your very own? Well, that’s where the line seems to go fuzzy.
It is more than okay to open yourself up to new thought and to admire styles, foods, customs and languages of cultures outside your own.
However, what is certainly not okay is adopting foreign customs as your own for your profit, diminishing the full complexity of a culture by boiling it down to a costume, or using a style that locals to the said culture are made fun of as your own new fashion.
We repeatedly see this pattern in American pop culture. We’ve seen it in the denunciation of Gwen Stefani as she objectified Japanese-American women as marketing tools to exotify herself as an artist, and the intense criticism thrown at the Kardashian clan for using traditionally African-American hairstyles and appropating those styles as their signature looks. The continued use of minority culture and customs as a style choice by white people has incited arguments and hurt on both sides, particularly when the same people those items belong to are ridiculed for their choice.
On the surface, borrowing a unique style or culture, like the Kardashians using Fulani braids to red carpet events, may seem like a compliment paid to the beauty of diverse styles. It becomes troubling, though, when you realize that the same black women who wear those braids in their daily lives are ridiculed and often are refused jobs for looking too “ghetto.” Too often does the foreign style or custom in question only become respectable when its used by a certain “type” of wearer.
Most recently, we’ve seen the pattern of condemnation for cultural appropriation in the form of the criticism Ariana Grande received on her “7 rings” music video, in which many felt the video boiled down Japanese culture to an edgy aesthetic while not including any Japanese people in the video.
In the context of Ariana Grande’s current situation, her overuse of self-tanner to darken her skin tone in combination with her “blaccent” — the adoption of vernacular, grammar and inflection stereotypically associated with young, urban African-Americans — has become a key example of the way celebrities inappropriately take inspiration from ethnic groups and, as a result, reduce entire communities down to a style choice or costume. It’s situations like Grande’s that show a clear disconnect in America, as the people accused of appropriation often have no ridiculing intent, yet their ignorance and lack of sensitivity to the marginalized experience makes them blind to the implications of their actions.
In response to all of the controversy surrounding her “7 rings” video and her unfortunate tattoo, Grande publicly admitted on Twitter her inability to read or write Kanji — a Japanese writing system; however, she failed to address any of the claims that her mistake shows careless appropriation and continues to claim appreciation. At the core of this issue is the intent. Although these appropriations often seem semantic, it’s crucial to remember that your actions do matter and affect other people.
There is nothing ignorant about asking if something you’ve said or done is acceptable, or if it makes another person or group feel disrespected. And for anyone being asked whether or not something qualifies as appropriation, know that the line between cultural appropriation and exchange is and — always will be — blurry, but communication, grace and respect always seem to have a clarifying and uniting power.