An Introduction to Cultural Appropriation

In the wake of our new presidential administration’s latest executive orders such as the Immigration Ban and the unblocking of the Dakota Access Pipeline, it is imperative that every individual work on developing an ethic of respect and shared learning for different ethnic minorities. A familiar battle cry of protesters and opponents of the Trump regime is “love trumps hate.” Let’s cultivate this environment of love and acceptance by eradicating cultural appropriation and racism from our community.

Cultural appropriation is defined as the borrowing of various traditions from other cultures. Some examples of appropriation are the classic “Indian” costume a là Pocahontas, and every time a fashion magazine proclaims that traditional African garbs like dashikis or caftans are the “new” it-item of the season.

“Cultural appropriation is when a different race uses traditions and makes it their own,” sophomore Sahara Williams said.

As a white woman, my privilege disallows me from fully describing cultural appropriation in our society because I have never experienced the negative effects of it firsthand. With the goal of educating myself and our readers about this phenomenon, I set to work interviewing students at our school who are members of various minorities.

One of the reasons why cultural appropriation has the propensity to be so offensive is due to context, and, more specifically, white privilege. Newsflash, institutionalized racism still exists in our society. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that 10.9 percent of African Americans are unemployed, compared to 4.8 percent of white Americans, with an overall statistic of 5.8 percent of all Americans being out of work. People of color are less likely to find employment, and when they do, many are condemned for standard hygienic practices. For example, most white women are easily able to style their hair to “look professional,” while many women of color are forced to use dangerous chemical relaxers and ditch natural hairstyles like cornrows or an afro to follow workplace grooming policies.

“Growing up, I’d have to see my mom come home and say ‘oh, so-and-so said this about my hair,’ so for other races to go around and do the same thing and not get put down about it, it just seems privileged,” Williams said.

It is white privilege that allows white celebrities like Kylie Jenner to wear dreadlocks and be hailed as “edgy,” while Zendaya Coleman, a woman of color, is criticized for wearing them. Giuliana Rancic, host of the show Fashion Police, commented on Zendaya’s hair, saying, “Like I feel like she smells like patchouli oil. Or weed.”

But how come certain aspects of various cultures are spliced out, displayed on white celebrities, and then labeled as “trendy?” We live in a world where social media can bombard a person with cultural knowledge, rhetoric, or stereotypes after a moment of loading or connecting to the wi-fi. At the same time, the opposite is true. Perhaps the internet has introduced more of a disconnect between those who value a style’s cultural significance, and those who appropriate because it looks attractive with a certain Instagram filter. Once a picture has circulated through the internet, it is likely that the origins of the picture have been lost. It’s almost like a game of really messed-up telephone.

“You can argue very much that it’s progressing, it’s connecting people; we’ve been able to hold fundraisers because of the internet and social media. But at the same time, you can be like ‘it’s a gateway to exploitation and seeing a manipulated view of things,’” senior Isabela Acenas said.

That’s why it is so important to be mindful of crossing cultural boundaries.

On the other hand, many individuals might claim that it is fine, for example, to wear clothing from another culture because one appreciates the clothing’s aesthetic. Yet there is most definitely a difference between appreciation and appropriation. It is the difference between wearing a feathered headdress at Coachella, versus protesting the Dakota Pipeline in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux. Do not use words from African American Vernacular English like “lit” or “slay” if you do not support the Black Lives Matter Movement. Simply put, it is completely inappropriate to adopt a cultural tradition if one lacks respect and understanding of the culture.

“If you’re putting yourself in the shoes of a person’s culture without any regard to that culture or getting their approval, then I wouldn’t say that’s appreciation. That’s appropriation,” Acenas said.

To conclude, be aware. Factor in your societal privilege, and whether you fully understand the item’s cultural significance and history. A good rule of thumb: stay in your lane.

This is not about being politically correct. It is about respect. It is about being a decent human being.

Posted on February 24, 2017 .