From Kimonos to Hoop Earrings: Who Owns Culture?


We have heard a lot about cultural appropriation in the last few years. Although some argue that this is linked to the stifling political correctness permeating society, it can also be linked to deepening education and research into the topic. Of course, no one would have given a second thought four decades ago if they wanted to wear something cultural, but that comes with its own undertones and implications of the racial tolerance of the public then.

Cultural appropriation is not a simple topic. Its general definition is the practice of adopting or using elements of one culture by members of another culture. It’s taken on a harmful and racial implication lately as its popular definition involves a dominant culture using other cultural identifiers and art without the consent of the original culture’s members. And yes, that may be the most confusing sentence in the world.

There are so many elements of culture that it’s impossible to create an easy checklist for what constitutes appropriation. However, lately, it seems like the answer is whether it offends someone or not. As we can all agree, offensiveness is not an accurate measurement for anything. As Ricky Gervais once said, “Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right.”

This isn’t to say there aren’t any grievances. There are countless circumstances where cultural appropriation is horrendous, tasteless, and downright racist. There are instances of blackface still occurring even though the racist history has long been documented and discussed. But then there are instances where things are taken too far, like when a resident assistant at a college sent out a school-wide email discussing how upsetting it was to see white girls in hoop earrings. Yes, hoop earrings.

Recently, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) found themselves unwitting players in the cultural appropriation debate. It began last month when the museum invited visitors to “channel your inner Camille Monet” by trying on kimonos and posing for photos next to Claude Monet’s painting “La Japonaise.” The event coincided with a lecture titled, “Claude Monet: Flirting With the Exotic,” sparking the outrage of several members of the public. The MFA responded by changing the talk’s title to “Claude Monet: ‘La Japonaise,” displaying the kimonos for visitors (no longer allowing them to try on the articles of clothing), and adding more educational talks to provide background and context on French Impressionism and the “Japonisme” movement, where the French became fascinated with Japan.

Tensions culminated in protests at the MFA, where crowds gathered to simultaneously protest against the idea of fetishizing Asian culture and encourage exploration of the Japanese culture. As the Boston Globe reports, one woman named Pampi held a sign that read, “Decolonize our museums,” and charged the MFA with “shirking its responsibilities to curate the event for a diverse American audience.” On the other hand, counter-protesters arrived, with several older Japanese women donning kimonos and holding signs that read, “I am not offended by people wearing kimonos in front of French paintings,” and “I welcome museum exhibits that share Japanese culture with the community.”

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