When is it okay to wear the local garb?
What are the ethics of dressing appropriately according to the country that you’re visiting? (Whether it’s covering your shoulders or head when entering a mosque or not wearing culturally appropriative accessories or styles — like Native American headdresses or getting dreadlocks in Jamaica.)
Dress Appropriately, People
I reeeeallly tried to put off answering this question, DAP, because I’ve never felt fully comfortable with the concept of cultural appropriation, and I think there are sometimes people are a little too quick to pull the cultural appropriation card. I’ll get to that. Let’s start with the easy stuff, though.
You should always try to wear the appropriate garb at religious ceremonies.
If you’re going to a local church, mosque, or temple, you should always make yourself aware of and conform to the institution’s dress code. This is simply a sign of respect. I grew up in the Catholic Church, and there wasn’t a strict dress code, but I know plenty of people who would’ve been annoyed if a newcomer came in wearing a t-shirt and short shorts. I personally would’ve enjoyed it, young heathen that I was, because I liked watching people in our Parish squirm, but there’s a big difference between rebelling from the outside and rebelling from the inside.
Unless you’re trying to make an open display of disrespect for some political reason (which, you know... don't do), conform to the local dress code (and check out my article on the ethics of being a feminist and wearing head coverings).
Okay, now into the harder stuff.
When am I being culturally appropriative?
There are times when wearing the local garb is culturally appropriative, which is a tricky concept that can be confused with cultural exchange.
The best breakdown of the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation I’ve read is by Jarune Uwujaren over at Everyday Feminism. If you want to better understand the issue, give that a read. In short though, cultural appropriation is when one culture adopts an element of another culture. This in itself sounds harmless — and it often is — but it gets tricky when the culture doing the borrowing dominates the culture being borrowed from, because you as the borrower might not understand the full history and implications of the thing you’re borrowing.
The Native American headdress provides a good example: in Native American Plains cultures, headdresses can’t be worn by just anyone. You could equate it to holding a qualified position like Doctor or military General: it’s something that must be earned.
The thing to remember is that the culture you are visiting may have been oppressed by a western culture, and they may have a long, painful history behind them. In the case of the Plains nations, it’s a history of brutal repression, cultural destruction, and genocide. For you to come in, play with their sacred symbols without having any knowledge of their meaning, and then toss them aside as you would any other costume, could be reasonably seen as insensitive.
Most cases aren’t this cut-and-dry, though, and a lot of what makes up modern Western culture could be considered cultural appropriation, from “ethnic” foods, to world music, to spiritual practices. Western culture brutally dominated India for centuries, for example. Is practicing yoga culturally appropriative? The short answer is yes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t practice it. Rather than refusing to ever participate in cultural appropriation (Goodbye, Taco Tuesday! Goodbye Stir Fryday!) you can simply educate yourself on the roots of the things you’re appropriating, and show them some amount of respect. You are already in a position of privilege. You can’t escape that. It’s okay. Just be willing to accept criticism and to listen and learn.
Just be respectful.
When I was in India, I went to a Hindu religious celebration with some of my classmates. We were invited to wear traditional garb, and the women had bindis put on their heads and were given henna tattoos. We ate with our hands, and we watched a ceremonial dance.
There was nothing wrong with this, because we were invited to participate by the Indian families that were hosting us. And that’s perhaps the main lesson I want to impart here: don’t let a fear of cultural appropriation keep you from cultural exchange. Participate in whatever you’re invited to participate in, and try and learn about it.
Culture can’t easily be siloed, and what feels like personal expression to you might feel like a misappropriation to someone else. My suggestion is to express yourself however you wish, but be respectful, sensitive, and curious when borrowing from other cultures (In regards to dreadlocks, I’d say don’t get dreadlocks, but that’s mostly because white people look terrible in them. There are arguments that they’re culturally appropriative, but dreadlocks have been around for millennia across many cultures, and not just in African and Caribbean cultures — they have a history in Asia and even Europe as well). If someone calls you out for cultural appropriation, don’t get defensive — talk to them. Try to learn what they mean. And then continue from there.