Indigenous advocates have been calling for a ban on the cultural appropriation of their cultures for years—and now the United Nations is finally taking note.
Last week, a UN specialized international committee within the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) convened in Geneva to work on three pieces of international law that will protect indigenous cultures from being misappropriated. The committee, officially known as Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC) has been calling for these sanctions for 16 years.
Delegates from 189 countries spent last week going through three draft documents of the legislation, which would expand property regulations to include cultural aspects like language, traditional knowledge and designs as indigenous intellectual property. This expansion would protect indigenous cultures from misappropriation and exploitation by outside parties, especially corporations that use ideas, expressions and designs from these cultures to sell products.
It’s no secret that cultural appropriation, intentional or not, has become commonplace in many different sectors—from the Bon Appétit video of a white chef demonstrating the “right” way to eat the Vietnamese dish pho to the widespread adornment of bindis and headdresses at music festivals. In recent years, celebrities, events and brands have been coming under close scrutiny for their misappropriation of other cultures. Just earlier this month, Katy Perry apologized for former instances of cultural appropriation on activist Deray McKesson’s “Pod Save the People.”
Oftentimes, women of color are most blatantly targeted by appropriative trends. Although some schools have banned cornrows, non-black celebrities like Katy Perry and Kylie Jenner wear them as “trendy.” Bindis, which are important cultural symbols for South Asian women, have become typical accessories at Coachella sets. The rampant sexualization and exotification of women of color has become a cultural staple through cultural appropriation. Images of “exotic” foreign women perpetuated by the media resurface in the forms of Halloween costumes and short-lived fashion trends.
James Anaya, dean of law at the University of Colorado—who was commissioned by the specialized committee in 2014—recalled the Urban Outfitter’s Navajo line as a specific example of the cultural appropriation the new laws aim to address. The Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for its illegal use of the tribe’s name for the 2012 clothing line, which featured items like flasks and women’s underwear, though the case was ultimately settled out of court. The company’s use of the Navajo name for financial profit, Anaya argued, illustrates the need for legal consequences to this non-consensual appropriation.
Although previously slow progress on the three drafts of international law has been sped up by the committee’s convening in Geneva, indigenous advocates remain concerned about how little indigenous voices are actually included in these discussions. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Company, many indigenous groups do not even know about the forthcoming legislation, as few are included in the deliberations of their member states.
While increasing indigenous representation will be necessary for these new laws to come to fruition, the convening of last week’s committee served as an important measure in preventing more harmful instances of appropriation. Cultural appropriation not only exploits the complex histories of other cultures for commercial profit, but it also too often perpetuates the exotification and commodification of the women who belong to those cultures.
Developing and enforcing international laws to counter the misappropriation of indigenous cultures will be a crucial step in a larger effort to protect those whose cultures are appropriated in similar ways—including the women whose rich histories and identities are unfairly flattened in the process.
Maddie Kim is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a sophomore at Stanford University, where she studies English and creative writing. Her poetry and prose have been recognized by the Norman Mailer Center, Princeton University, Sierra Nevada Review and Adroit Prizes. She is a prose reader for The Adroit Journal. When she’s not writing, she likes tap dancing and taking blurry photos of her dogs. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.
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