Appreciation Over Appropriation

Charlize Chen ‘19

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The United States is often referred to as a “melting pot” of a plethora of different nations and cultures. While America prides itself as a blend of different hands reaching out for the same opportunities, where is the line drawn between cultural integration and cultural disregard? From Halloween costumes to hairstyles, cultural appropriation has been a mainstay in the debate over oppression and racism. In fact, the discussion of cultural appropriation is more prominent than ever after pop stars have literally taken center stage with accusations of parroting music, offensive live performances, and questionable fashion choices. In my opinion, there should be a clear difference between accusations of cultural appropriation and acts of cultural appreciation.

Cultural appropriation is formally defined by the Oxford dictionary as the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, and ideas of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society. In order words, cultural appropriation is often unintentional and done by white people towards people of color. Even though cultural appropriation is rarely intentional or done with harmful intentions, it does not erase the harmful effects.

One of the most detrimental implications of cultural appropriation is that it trivializes historical oppression and refuses to respect the identity of the parroted culture. Furthermore, cultural appropriation establishes a double standard between the original tradition and the “adapted” version. Brittani Kelly, a black woman, explains how dreadlocks were meant to maintain thicker hair that was characteristic of black people. Dreadlocks eventually became an integral part of black culture, and for white people to label it as a “fashion choice” was insulting [1]. Pop artists like Kylie Jenner and Miley Cyrus were praised for being “fashion forward” by sporting dreadlocks, while black celebrities such as Zendaya received comments that they “smells like patchouli oil” or “look ratchet”.

In addition, cultural appropriation without acknowledgement allows people with greater privilege to profit from oppressed peoples. Many businesses open with their origins based off of “Native American” spirituality, exploiting actual Native Americans who practice their religion. Cultural appropriation also allows for stolen music and art made famous after they were taken. Bruno Mars has recently faced backlash for his R+B style, as many claim that Mars developed music from black artists won him his Grammy. There is a large amount of controversy surrounded allegations made towards Mars. Some argue that he is honoring black artists by hiring backup dancers that are people from that culture and is paying homage, while others believe that Mars is profiting from his racial ambiguity in a way that other black artists are unable to [2].

In response to instances of cultural appropriation, I encourage people of color to call out instances of exploitation and racism that pertain to their own culture. On August 30th, 2017, activists in Portland, Oregon created a list of “appropriate restaurants” that served banh mi and dosas without proper knowledge of the food’s preparation. Young Asian-Americans protested when the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, invited visitors to pose next to Monet’s ‘‘La Japonaise’’ while wearing a matching kimono [3]. A social media campaign started by South Asian women has taken place in response to clothing at music festivals like Coachella, posting pictures of their grandmothers and mothers wearing bindis with captions like “My Culture is not a costume” [4]. It is common knowledge that one is the master of themselves, and that pertains to one’s traditions and customs. It is not considered “crossing boundaries” if a Native American corrects a white person on the choice to wear tribal t-shirts, and it is definitely encouraged to be more open minded when it comes to accepting criticism about a lesser-known cultural topic.

However, there is a catch. Cultural appropriation should only be acknowledged if it is blatant erasure. It is completely fine, and even encouraged, to explore other cultures and learn about them. I am not saying that we should only pay attention to our heritage in fear of appropriation. Instead, we should explore different cultures with reverence and an open mind. [5] Jenni Avins, writer, details how she “wear[s] Spanish straw-soled espadrilles and Navajo turquoise rings” while “deeply appreciating the craftsmanship and design behind these items, as well as the adventures and people they recall.” Rather than appropriation, Avins is exemplifying appreciation. “It’s definitely okay to borrow from other cultures as long as you give proper credit,” explains Emma Aird ’18. “If you’re going to be wearing a kilt or a kimono, you’re not disrespecting any culture if you give acknowledgement and pass it off as a trend.”

As high schoolers, many of us are connected to social media and are up-to-date on the latest trends. Before following a popular style, it is important to consider whether or not the inspiration is acknowledged. “I think that when you disrespect other people’s cultures and do not realize what you’re doing is wrong, it leads to misunderstandings between potential friends,” comments Pasha Saidi ’21. In order to prevent these misconceptions, try to open yourself up to different cultures, and do not be afraid to ask someone who is familiar with that culture before assimilation. Always remember to love one’s culture and to not trivialize the experience of oppression. Most importantly, mindfulness is key.

To me, what cultural appreciation embodies is respect is given to the adapted culture, an incentive to learn about said culture is demonstrated, and acknowledgment to the history behind the custom. As an Asian-American myself, I would much rather prefer people of other races choosing to wear qipao as a way to recognize Chinese culture instead of parroting as a stylish dress with Asian flair. So, go ahead! Feel free to expand your worldview through the lenses of respect. Rather than erasing the cultural history of others, write your own path of exploration.

Sources:

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/30/opinion/cultural-appropriation.html

[2] http://www.complex.com/music/2018/03/bruno-mars-is-the-center-of-twitter-latest-cultural-appropriation-debate/

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/04/magazine/is-cultural-appropriation-always-wrong.html

[4] https://www.theodysseyonline.com/cultural-appropriation-cultural-appreciation-line

[5] https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/10/the-dos-and-donts-of-cultural-appropriation/411292/

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Appreciation Over Appropriation