Cultural Appropriation 101
A reporter discusses cultural appropriation and how it can be avoided.
Cultural appropriation is making headlines left and right in the 21st century. It seems like celebrities and fashion retailers are accused of this ethical violation weekly, and a related incident made headlines on Western’s campus in January. In these times of cultural insensitivity, it is vital to reinforce appropriate ways to appreciate a culture, instead of disrespecting those who belong to it.
What is cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is when one culture takes important aspects from another culture for personal use. This can be anything from wearing a Pocahontas outfit for Halloween to celebrating ethnic traditions without knowing their meaning.
The primary difference between cultural appropriation and cultural assimilation is who is taking culture from who. When a larger culture steals from a smaller culture for recreational use it is appropriation, versus when a smaller culture adapts parts of a larger culture it can be assimilation as a means to survive.
Lacrosse was originally a game played to honor Native American gods, however the Europeans began playing it as something to watch for entertainment. Native Americans were forcibly assimilated however, when they were forced to abide by the Peace Policy, which was a law passed by President Ulysses S. Grant that encouraged Native Americans to read and write in English and learn how to farm.
Why is it bad?
There are numerous reasons why one should be cautious about adopting significant parts of a different culture.
It offends people from that culture. Certain traditional ceremonies, food and music are viewed as sacred, sentimental and significant to those who come from that specific culture. How would you feel if something that symbolizes the sanctity of marriage was an accessory to wear at Coachella?
When people outside the culture steal and publicize it for popularity and monetary gain, the value of that symbol in their society turns into something common and meaningless, and at times even derogatory, whereas for people who are appropriating, it is deemed as high fashion.
There has been a long history of dreadlocks in multiple cultures such as African, Indian and Jamaican cultures. However, celebrities who have no relation to any of those cultures, such as Kylie Jenner for a “rebel themed” photoshoot in a desert setting, have seen praise for wearing the hairstyle.
It stereotypes and belittles that culture. Once the aspect of that culture is brought forth for mainstream use, people associate that culture with how it is portrayed in media. No longer does that culture entail every holiday, belief and tradition it once did. Instead, it deteriorates to how the average human has seen it on television, in movies, or at the mall. Cinco de Mayo is viewed as a holiday where people drink beer too much beer and dance to music in a language they most likely don’t know, when in reality it signifies a small town called Puebla defeating the French army back in 1862.
How do I make sure I’m not culturally appropriating?
- Understand the cultural meaning behind an activity or item. Whether that is wearing a clothing article or cooking a dish that is important to a different society, understand how to appreciate it before taking action.
- Wait for someone to invite you into the culture. Simply being friends or in a relationship with someone from that culture does not give permission to enter it. Only a personal invitation to participate does.
- Participate in an appropriate setting. While in a different part of the world for whatever reason, engage if it is socially disrespectful to not partake in that situation. For instance, when Angelina Jolie visited Pakistan and wore a Hijab.
Err on the safe side. At the end of the day if it is unknown whether something is considered cultural appropriation, opt out. It is better to be cautious than to add more hardships to the ever-growing war of preserving and protecting cultures.