Stefani told me she identifies not just with Japan’s culture, but also with the Hispanic and Latinx communities of Anaheim, California, where she grew up. “The music, the way the girls wore their makeup, the clothes they wore, that was my identity,” she said. “Even though I’m an Italian American — Irish or whatever mutt that I am — that’s who I became because those were my people, right?” I asked Fariha I. Khan, Ph.D., codirector of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, to help clarify the line between inspiration or appreciation and appropriation. “Simply put, cultural appropriation is the use of one group’s customs, material culture, or oral traditions by another group,” she said, and raises two important factors to consider: commodification and an unequal power relationship.
In terms of commodification, Stefani has certainly made a lot of money tapping into other cultures for inspiration. “A hit is a hit,” Stefani told me, referencing the success of her Harajuku Mini children’s clothing line in Target from 2011 and her fashion line L.A.M.B. from 2003. “A hit is what makes me tick. The more people I reach, the better.” And she has reached an enormous amount of people. As a solo artist and as part of No Doubt, Stefani has sold more than 50 million units (one album or approximately 10 songs) worldwide. Beyond her music, as of 2019, Stefani’s brands have brought in more than $1 billion in retail sales — brands that include L.A.M.B., Harajuku Lovers, and Harajuku Mini. Stefani has taken some of those profits and made charitable donations, including $1 million (plus proceeds from a special-edition Harajuku Lovers T-Shirt) to Save the Children’s Japan Earthquake-Tsunami Children in Emergency Fund in 2011. (In March 2011, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami killed more than 18,000 people in Japan and left more than 450,000 unhoused.)
And then there’s the power part: “When a group has been historically marginalized and/or racialized by another group, the issue of power is central to cultural appropriation,” explains Dr. Khan. “The dominant group has the power to take (or appropriate) the marginalized group’s customs and practices and give these traditions meaning — without the original context or significance.”
And the unequal power relationship between the person with the power (often a white person) and the group they claim to be part of can create negative repercussions for the latter — no matter the intentions of the former. “While I think [lack of awareness] is a valid reason, I don’t think it’s a valid excuse,” says Angela Nguyen, MSW, a therapist at the Yellow Chair Collective, a psychotherapist group with an emphasis on serving the Asian American community.