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Kim and ‘cultural misappropriation’ of the kimono

Kim who?

Kim Kardashian West: the US reality TV star who is famous for being famous, and for her outsized posterior, which she has put on public display for profit and pleasure.

What has she done now?

She’s been getting some unflattering attention lately. Last fortnight, Kim unveiled a line of form-fitting shapewear, which she named the Kimono line. It plays on her own name, of course, and is entirely in character with her borderline narcissism, but it instantly drew criticism…

On what grounds?

For the reason that the name ‘kimono’ was disrespectful of Japanese culture, and in a broader sense, amounted to ‘cultural appropriation’ to the extent that Kim looked to profit from the generic name for a traditional outfit in that country, without acknowledging the heritage.

Ooh, someone’s touchy!

Not at all. It’s a consideration that should weigh with brands in an era where ‘local’ and ‘global’ cultural influences interact.

First things first: what is ‘cultural appropriation’?

In 2015, the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver undertook an initiative called ‘Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage Project’. It came out with a handbook titled Think Before You Appropriate: Things to know and questions to ask in order to avoid misappropriating Indigenous cultural heritage.

What did it say?

The handbook defines “appropriation”, at its most basic, as the act of taking “something that belongs to someone else for one’s own use. In the case of heritage, appropriation happens when a cultural element is taken from its cultural context and used in another.” It also defined “misappropriation” as “a one-sided process where one entity benefits from another group’s culture without permission and without giving something in return.”

Does this happen a lot?

You’d be surprised. Some black Americans believe Elvis Presley “filched” classic rhythm-and-blues riffs from black culture — and then sold them to white, mainstream audiences. Likewise, a few years ago, South Asian women in the US launched a campaign to “reclaim the bindi” — the distinguishing mark on the forehead — in protest against the fashion trend where non-Indians had begun to flaunt the bindi.

That seems a little extreme.

Perhaps, but as the movement leaders noted, South Asians in the US used to face harassment from racial supremacists who called themselves ‘dotbusters’ and targeted women who wear the bindi. The ‘reclaim the bindi’ movement’s case was that while South Asians were left to deal with the harassment and stigma over their cultural symbols, white women were reducing the bindi to a fashion statement and were being appreciated for being ‘hip’ and ‘trendy’.

But does this mean cultures can never interact?

No, they must engage, but they must do so with sensitivity. In fact, in Elvis Presley’s case, there may be another way of looking at the charge of ‘cultural appropriation’.

What is that?

In the 1950s, radio stations in racially segregated America refused to play the rock-and-roll songs of Chuck Berry because they were seen as “race music”. But when Elvis, the white boy, started playing the same tunes, it was considered ‘cool’. In that sense, it could be argued that by mainstreaming rock-and-roll, Elvis in fact helped advance racial integration.

Where does all this leave Kim?

For now, she has yielded to criticism, and has said he will change the name of her Kimono line to reflect the “inclusivity and diversity” that, she said, are the core of her brands. Lesson learnt.

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