One Simple Question

Photo courtesy of Sidai Designs
Photo courtesy of Sidai Designs

Unlike the Maasai of Kenya who circle their necks in bright colors, Maasai women of Tanzania wear white beads. So when they began to turn beading skills into income through their social enterprise and Ibu partner, Sidai, they decided that their creations would also be white. It's who they are. 

When you wear a handsome white cuff on your wrist beaded by the women of Sidai, you are wearing a small cultural signature. Many people today are wondering out loud if wearing the jewelry and clothing of another culture is a form of cultural appropriation. It's a thoughtful question, but the responses are (quite literally) all over the map.

Photo courtesy of Sidai Designs

Photo courtesy of Sidai Designs

There are so many complex facets to this conversation—all worthy of examining in depth. But I have learned that much is resolved by asking one simple question: in what direction does the money flow?  

Walking by an home furnishing chain store, I see a pretty Otomi pillow in the window, as in the embroidery of the Otomi people (who call themselves hñuhñu) living in what is now Mexico, (though their history there predates even the Aztecs). Colorful birds, rabbits, and stags leap across the face of the fabric, suggestive of their pantheon of spirit guides. Drawn in, I look closer and discover that the pillow is actually machine embroidered in a factory in China—an exact replica of the hand-stitched tenango I love. Profits flow to this retail giant. The Otomi who authored and handed down this totemic design receive no remuneration. The nuance of stitch, so expressive and personal in the hand of a woman, is now reduced to a uniform caricature pushed out for a year or two until it has saturated the market, over-exposed—and then is discontinued. To the average consumer, it will soon become dated. 

I flash back to the woman in Mexico from whom I purchased her glorious hand-embroidered tenango, four months in the making. Her face lifts quietly with pride and ownership; her hands accept income upon which to build a life. It is more than I would ordinarily pay for a tablecloth. And yet, in the stitches, splendidly imperfect, I sense the slant of a human life, the slow passage of time, a patented poem to beauty. When I look in the store window now, I can only see her face. 

In what direction does the money (respect, attribution) flow? Are profits from a native design held sacred to a community flowing into corporate coffers? Cultural appropriation.  

Or are earnings of a woman employing her matrilineal birthright to craft beauty flowing into her hands? Is she—like a Maasai woman in Tanzania—receiving fair payment, the market's respect, and creative attribution for offering her distinctive song to the world's opus? That's what I would call cultural appreciation.  

Of course, that's too easy and tidy a response to a larger complicated question. But it's a start. It's why we do what we do at Ibu. Our mission is to keep money flowing back to the creators as they craft their own narrative about their work and their identity and share it with the world. This is hugely important to me; the reason I began the Movement ten years ago. To treasure what is fragile, sustain it, hold it to the light—each brilliant craft, each inspired woman, each endangered community. Each necessary piece, refined over countless generations, fitting perfectly into the puzzle, which is our common world.

All the best,