Cultural Appropriation 101
Published: Thursday, November 1, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 1, 2012 23:11
With Halloween just behind us, it seems appropriate to turn to the much debated subject of cultural appropriation. Let’s start off with a pretty simple definition: Cultural appropriation is the use of an aspect of a culture – religious/political holidays, clothing, jewelry, music, language, etc. – by a non-member of that culture who ignores its cultural, political and historical significance. The act of cultural appropriation takes power and privilege: the power to take the easy and beautiful aspects of a marginalized culture and use them, generally without being questioned, and the privilege to ignore or give back everything politically or religiously significant, meaningful or historically difficult associated with that marginalized culture.
Now, let’s look at some examples. That trendy, “tribal” print from American Outfitters? Yes. Bindis worn as a fashion statement? Yes. The name of the Redskin’s Football Team? Yes. Indian Princess costumes? Geisha costumes? Blackface makeup? Sugar skull makeup and paraphernalia? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
Everyone can culturally appropriate. Let me repeat. Everyone can culturally appropriate. Everyone has a culture of which they are not members and because of that, they have that power and privilege to pick and choose.
So what’s the big deal about cultural appropriation anyway? As long as you’re not actively inflicting violence on a minority group, it’s okay, right? As long as you’re not using racial slurs, all is well, yeah? The answers to those questions are: Everything. No. And no.
Cultural appropriation turns the realities of different groups of people into entertainment or into fashion statements. It groups widely diverse communities into one stereotyped image. It takes away the sacredness of a tradition and turns it into the next fad. It tells those cultures and those people that their way of worship, their way of dressing, their music, their language are acceptable as long as they’re fun or pretty. That way, no one has to think about what those things mean, and what injustices and violent acts have been done to people simply for being who they are. Cultural appropriation continues to normalize this idea that one image or one person can represent and homogenize an entire group.
There’s a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Cultural appropriation is taking aspects of another culture and using them without permission or understanding. Cultural appreciation, on the other hand, involves learning about another culture and the significance it places in certain objects. Cultural appreciation is being invited into a culture’s practices to observe, participate and learn. However, just because you’ve been invited to a Native American tribe’s open powpow at some point does not make it okay to wear moccasins made by non-Native Americans or wear a war bonnet you have not earned. And taking photos or wearing elements of a culture you don’t belong to because “you like how it looks” or “it’s fashionable now” isn’t cultural appreciation, it’s appropriation.
I want to leave you with words of wisdom Professor Kevin Quashie once said: “There are three things we must keep in mind simultaneously: 1. Culture belongs to no one. 2. Culture belongs to everyone. 3. If culture can belong to someone, it belongs to those who have significant experiences with it.”
I urge you to keep that idea in mind when you do anything from picking out a new item of clothing to deciding what to be next Halloween. If before you put something on you wonder if it might be problematic, racist or appropriative – it probably is.