In August, Madonna sported a mishmash of accessories from the Amazigh tribe in North Africa while performing at the VMAs. Some found her jewelry "insulting," although Addi Ouadderrou, a Moroccan Amazigh, told NPR that her getup didn't bother him. "If someone comes to Morocco and wants to wear our clothes, to me, that's an honor; that's not an insult," he said.
But wearing a barong to Tatay's birthday party—this, I felt, was not appropriation. It filled me with pride to see my white husband in the clothing of my heritage. I know my family was excited, too. My uncle lent his shirt, which he had dry-cleaned and pressed before giving to Darren. My cousins wanted to take selfies with him.
I reassured him that he was expressing support and a sense of unity with my Filipino family. And we were wearing these outfits as an act of kindness to Tatay. He is losing his memory—but barong and patadyong and lechon, these are some of the things that remain in his mind.
Still, I wasn't sure who was right. Was Darren appreciating? Or appropriating? I turned to the experts for advice.
Erich Hatala Matthes, an assistant professor of philosophy at Wellesley College who studies the ethics of cultural heritage, told me that there's no clear definition of cultural appropriation: "It's a really messy thing."
Listening to my story, he says it was okay that Darren wore a barong to my family party. "He's been invited by you and your family. He has a good reason to do it. It's an act of cultural solidarity," he says.
But there are times when it's not okay, says Matthes: If you are wearing the clothing of another culture to intentionally offend or make fun of the group or to assert power over them (for example, if Darren was wearing the barong to make a point that America once occupied the Philippines—yikes!). And the folks I interviewed urge caution when it comes to dressing up in the garb of another ethnic group for Halloween.
"If you're [not] wearing it as part of a cultural exploration or education, you should be hesitant," Matthes says.
Each culture gets to give permission to share a cultural tradition—or not, says C. Thi Nguyen, an associate professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University. He is the co-author of a paper titled Cultural Appropriation and the Intimacy of Groups.
That's because not all groups within a culture have the same views, he says. In May, a white high school student in Utah ignited furor for wearing a Chinese-style dress to prom because she liked its look. In a viral tweet, one person on Twitter wrote, "my culture is NOT" ... your prom dress. Another wrote, "I am a Chinese woman. I support you!"