Indigenous people from over 189 countries, though primarily those residing in North America, are currently in the negotiation stages with various United Nations committees regarding the criminalization of cultural appropriation.
Defined as “…to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another;”, cultural appropriation is all but unavoidable in current society. Each year, Halloween and Coachella bring about a sudden resurgence of the fan-favourites: Indigenous American headwear, bindis, tribal prints and henna. However, The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a UN agency, is being implored to implement “effective criminal and civil enforcement procedures” to avoid the fetishization and consumerism of indigenous culture.
Following the recent scandal in which popular clothing retailer, Urban Outfitters, faced legal charges after selling traditional Navajo print “hipster panties”, more attention is being paid to the blatantly insensitive and offensive nature of cultural appropriation. Even celebrities are now having to answer to their appropriative crimes, something they might’ve been able to slip away with in past years.
Katy Perry, for instance, sat down for a lengthy and cringe-worthy tell-all interview where she meekly claimed ignorance over the fact that her donning cornrows or a Japanese Geisha outfit was considered extremely offensive to certain demographics. Personally, I think it seems to be more a case of “don’t care” rather than “don’t know”, as is with many celebrities who take it upon themselves to commodify another culture just to make headlines. I mean, one of her song lyrics is “Now we’re talking astrology, getting our nails did all Japanese-y”; who thought that was a good idea?
While this call for legal prosecution may have initially seemed drastic and unlikely to come to fruition, it is being regarded as an action long overdue and the UN appears to be willing to oblige. James Anaya, Dean of Law at the University of Colorado, states that the UN should “obligate states to create an effective criminal and civil enforcement procedure to recognize and prevent the non-consensual taking and illegitimate possession, sale and export of traditional cultural expressions.”.
The process of outlawing what has essentially become an unfortunate standard in society will no doubt be an arduous and unpleasant one, with no guarantee of any solid laws being passed. Regardless, the dialogue that has erupted around this case appears to be establishing a solid foundation detailing what can and can’t be done with regards to indigenous culture. If it stops any more Katy Perry’s from Katy Perrying, I’m down to fight the good fight.