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Sunday, May 31, 2020

On appreciation vs. appropriation

For the record, The Western Front Editorial Board is composed of three very white people: Dante Koplowitz-Fleming, Monique Merrill and Laura Place.

It’s a Friday afternoon and the sun is shining. There’s a group of white students applying henna on each other in the grass. Beside them, a group of white dreadlocked folks play hacky sack in Red Square.

Ah, yes. Cultural appropriation: when people, mostly white, take aspects of other cultures, mostly non-white, and use them as accessories to their lives. Not just accessories, but practices, ideas, all of the above. Essentially, it’s when a dominant culture picks elements from a minority culture. And it’s everywhere.

At an individual level, for example, appropriation manifests as the tribal tattoos white people get just because they think it makes them look tough. Or white people hanging a decorative sword above their bed that they tell everyone is a real samurai sword but really they got it online from some guy named Tony. Or white people and almost anything they wear at festivals because Instagram told them it was trendy via one, or all, of the Jenners.

And it’s not just individuals who appropriate – remember the ill-fated “Hawaiian Night” the Western athletics department tried to throw last winter? It lasted all of four hours before being cancelled due to the backlash. Somehow, the powers that be neglected to consider the implications of hosting a basketball game themed after Hawaiian culture. Especially when they reduced that culture to a photoshopped lei and a “beach gear” dress code. It was egregious. (Also egregious was when they decided a basketball game needed a theme other than “basketball.”)

Ah, yes. Cultural appropriation: a gross oversight of another culture’s values and symbols used as an accessory without having an understanding of the culture. Even having an understanding doesn’t always justify it. Because, while white people can try on other cultures, they will never know the experience of those other cultures. Appreciating other cultures does not mean adopting aspects of that culture. It’s by learning and respecting other cultures beyond their aesthetic appeal.

Sound hard? It’s not. There are respectful ways to engage with and learn about another culture, and some of them are right here on campus. For instance, The Ethnic Student Center is hosting a series of Heritage Dinners all throughout February and into March.

So, if you’re concerned about whether or not you’re being appropriative, pull out that tiny computer in your back pocket and do literally any amount of research about the culture you’re interested in and stop to think about how your actions might come across to members of that culture. And, please, don’t get a tattoo about it.


  1. Sharing implies ideas were given & shared. Cultural appropriation is when ideas & ways are taken without consent. Just because you see something in the public space does not mean it’s fair game to use.


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