Many are accusing Carnival Nationz, a mas band that plays carnival music, of cultural appropriation after they released their costumes, including a headdress in an attempt to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, for the annual Toronto Caribbean Festival.
Cultural appropriation is when an ethnic group takes another’s clothing, practices, or other cultural pieces and uses it as their own. Though the concept behind it is simple, it is often misunderstood as an exchange or a way to respect another culture and it is necessary to differentiate between the two.
Cultural exchange is different from cultural appropriation as it comes out of a place of respect. Both groups exchanging are relatively equal to each other in the power structure that exists in society. This creates a mutual interaction that consists of not only respectfully taking but also willingly giving.
After understanding cultural exchange, it becomes simpler to understand cultural appropriation. On the surface, it’s taking parts of another group’s culture, but that isn’t all cultural appropriation is. It is also the absorption of aspects of a minority group’s culture to the benefit, enrichment, or entertainment of the dominant culture without the necessary respect. These pieces of culture have traditions and meanings behind them that are completely disregarded when being appropriated.This is the danger behind cultural appropriation: it takes the meaning behind these cultural items away and makes them commercialized and profitable.
This is where the issue behind Carnival Nationz’s headdresses lies: traditional indigenous headdresses are often reserved by chiefs for special occasions and ceremonial purposes, not the Toronto Caribbean Festival.
“It’s very disrespectful when you see people just wearing them as a costume, because it’s not a costume. It’s very, very traditional, and it holds a lot of meaning. It’s very symbolic,” said Shaniece, a Mi’kmaq-Jamaican woman in a CityNews interview.
“The headdress is revered in our culture and it is not worn just by anybody,” added Denise Stonefish, deputy grand chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians in a CTV News interview.
Although the band’s original intent to honour indigenous people isn’t harmful, their disrespectful execution is, and there are better ways that they could celebrate indigenous culture. It is up to the dominant culture to understand the significance and story behind the items they choose to take in order to avoid appropriating significant or sacred cultural items and removing their context. The best way to do this is to involve people from the minority group and start a conversation about these cultural symbols in order to become more thoughtful when using things from other cultures, to understand any sacred or important backgrounds of the objects, and the learn about the best practices to show respect.
By doing this, one can appreciate and respect other cultures and their items better, rather than stealing valuable pieces of other ethnic identities.