Why Cultural Appropriation Is Wrong
It is a tricky question because it touches on one’s ability to express themselves.
Often, it comes from a good place, where someone truly appreciates the culture and sincerely feels keen interest to incorporate parts of it in their live. For example, when someone wears a cultural dress to an event.
Other times it comes from ignorance where they don’t realize the history and symbolism behind things. Like wearing your hair in cornrows, because you saw it in a magazine.
And rarely, it comes from a bad place where they want to show superiority over another culture – if someone dresses as a Native American for Halloween, implying they are savage and scary.
WHAT IS CULTURAL APPROPRIATION?
Cultural appropriation happens when a representative of a dominant culture adopts elements from a minority culture, usually without showing appreciation or understanding.
Is eating pasta cultural appropriation of the Italian culture? Well, the best answer would be ‘Ask the Italians.’ But no, it does not have the classic elements of cultural appropriation.
So what are the classic elements of cultural appropriation?
- The power dynamic. The severity of cultural appropriation lies on a spectrum. Whenever the minority culture has the history (or present) of being oppressed by the majority culture, the more the cultural appropriation is unacceptable.
- Symbolism. Pasta does not have any particular symbolism behind it, it is a dish, an everyday part of life. Wearing bindi, for example, (the colored decoration Hindu women wear on their foreheads), stripped off its meaning, just because ‘it looks edgy’ is wrong.
- Gains. It often sparks the greatest conflict when it is done for profit (in music or fashion) or to purposely further support stereotypes (mostly in movies).
- Claims. It usually sparks public outrage. People from the minority culture feel they are being exploited and violated, while the defenders say their freedom of expression is being infringed. However, in order to work towards equality the feelings of the historically oppressed and/or minority culture today have to be respected.
WHY IS CULTURAL APPROPRIATION SO WRONG?
It diminishes the significant violations against ethnic groups
Perhaps the most popular example of cultural appropriation is the controversial mascot of the Washington Redskins NFL team.
One side of the coin of the discussion is the side of the NFL. They have invested money, time and efforts into building their brand – the name, the logo, the mascot bring the image a Native American… The large majority of their fan base endorse this identity and ascribe the spirit of the team to the myth of the fast, strong and savage Indian Tribes…
The other side of the coin is the side of Native Americans. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) is leading a campaign, dating back as far as 1968 to fight the stereotypes in media in and popular culture.
The NCAI feel using Native American images and symbols for sports is not honoring their culture. Rather, they feel those are caricatures that promote racists stereotypes.
However, there is more to this discussion than just the two sides of a coin, the two sides of an argument. A deeper look into history puts weight on the position of the Native Americans.
The name, when it was given to the team, did not have any positive connotations. ‘Redskins’ was a racial slur given to bounty hunters in the 1800’s to imply they are supposed to bring the government proof of their prey – the actual skins of the killed Native Americans.
At that point in time the American Indians were restricted to reservations, they were pushed towards assimilation, they were being deprived of their own rights and culture. To justify the viciousness with which they treated the Native Americans, it would be implied they are the ones that are violent, erratic and savage.
The ‘redskins’ were to be feared from and avoided. George Preston Marshall, the owner of the club, did not choose the name to show appreciation. It was to perpetuate the stereotype, associating once again the entire ethnic group with the violent traits of character sport.
The U.S. Patent Office found the name disparaging to Native Americans and declared they will not give copyright protection to the team.
While the battle is far from being over, public concern grows and the campaign continues.
‘Normal’ becomes ‘edgy’
It happens time and time again that African American women who wear their natural hair at work are criticized for it, asked to change, seen as unprofessional and encouraged to look ‘more normal’.
There is evidence proving the bias against ‘black hair’. 4000 participants have been asked to participate in an implicit association test where they are shown rapidly changing images of black women with different hairstyles.
Interestingly enough the study confirms the younger generation perceives less differences between natural and smoother hair, being more accepting. This is proof the prejudice is a learned behavior and society can therefore ‘unlearn’ it.
The bad news – the study has proved white women showed the strongest bias against textured hair, indicating they find it the least professional. At the same time, black women showed more anxiety when they had to respond to questions about natural hair.
At the same time white women who take on this hairstyle as ‘something fun’ or something ‘something new’ are celebrated for it, for thinking out of the box, for being brave.
In 2016 designer Valentino runs a fashion show of predominantly white models, braided in cornrows, wearing African inspired clothes.
It shows yet another example of the imbalance of power. Moreover, it adds to the arguments of oblivious employers to reprimand women of color. As soon as being natural is associated with fashion, it is regarded as a choice, which for black women it is not.
Cultural theft and benefit
The Jenner/Kardashian family are definitely the most famous culprits of cultural appropriation.
In April 2014 Teenage Kylie Jenner has been celebrated for her wearing part of her hair in cornrows, being called an ‘epic’ and ‘bold’ choice and sparks outrage.
What contributes to the amount of public anger is the family is not known for backing claims of African Americans in times of heated social discourse, such as the Black Lives Matter campaign.
And in July 2015, Jenner goes all in on the hairstyle again and is hit with public disapproval even harder.
Black actress known from The Hunger Games, Amandla Stenberg’s social media response expresses in a very simple and very understandable way why the black community could feel offended from Jenner’s choice of ‘fashion’. Amandla explains why it is NOT just a hairstyle on Twitter.
“When u appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards ur wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter,”
Especially indicative is adding the hashtag at the end. ‘White girls do it better’. It stresses on the fact Kylie’s main motive for action is to explore the black culture for inspiration for her look, while leaving aside all historic and current political background.
Interestingly enough, there is another very popular celebrity, accused for appropriating elements of black culture without backing the community when they need to draw public attention to their needs and struggles.
Back before cultural appropriation was the popular term that it is today, Elvis Presley’s music was accused of mimicking black art, all the while reaping the benefits the black Americans couldn’t.
As The Guardian explains it, Elvis Presley benefitted from the moment in history when black writers and musicians were not acknowledged. While black Americans could not be accepted in society if they were anything else but subservient and non-threatening, they would never be given credit for their art.
At the same time, the white all-American Elvis, taking elements from their culture and art, comes up with dynamic, energetic, crazy music, and is perceived as safe, bold and refreshing.
Elvis has never spoken out against the unfair treatment of black Americans.
While it is a necessary and natural process for different cultures to borrow elements from each other, accept them and create a new harmony, it is unacceptable to focus narrowly on elements that will bring you benefit and profit, without knowing and SUPPORTING the culture you are adopting parts of.
And when those same elements are for different reasons impossible for access by representatives of their own culture, you are not borrowing them, you are taking them away.
The Everyday Feminism magazine has illustrated quite well one of the most atrocious consequences of cultural appropriation.
The example comes to explain why it would be offensive for a little girl to dress as Pocahontas for Halloween. A harmless, fun gesture it seems at first sight. Just another form of self-expression banned by cultural appropriation activists?
That is, until you look deeper.
It often happens that the winners rewrite history, and, this is largely true for the story of Pocahontas.
The truth is, she lived a tragic life, romanticized by Disney to where it is almost unrecognizable. Her real given name even, the magazine writes, was actually Matoaka. She was kidnapped as a teenager for ransom, forced to convert to Christianity and married off to an Englishmen at the age of 17.
She was used for propaganda purposes – as an example of a ‘civilized savage’ in hopes to attract investments for her settlement. She died early, around the age of 20.
The propaganda, however, has continued in various forms of art, the most popular of which, the Disney film.
The magazine draws an eerie parallel with another little girl, whose tragic story is more well known.
They ask the question if it is so bad to dress your daughter as Pocahontas, just because there are misconceptions about her really tragic life. Isn’t the concept what matters? And they answer it like so:
‘You might think it does if she wanted to dress up as someone whose tragic truth is more familiar, like Anne Frank. They’re both girls with harrowing stories. But more of us believe that trivializing Anne Frank’s life is in very poor taste.
Can you imagine the outcry if Disney tried to romanticize her diary by aging her into a young woman with a love affair with a Nazi officer and a happy ending?
Now imagine if that Disney movie was mainstream culture’s primary reference for the Holocaust. And if it was marketed to Germans, who were told that the historical figures who oppressed the Jewish people were their country’s heroes.’
That is why it is wrong. In this particular case rewriting history romanticizes a tragic story to fit the narrative of the winners of history. It not only repeats the wrong story, but it deletes events that could contribute to the better understanding of the hurt of the Native Americans today.
HOW TO REACT TO CULTURAL APPROPRIATION ACCUSATIONS
How do you know?
Version 1: You are being told.
The best way to know if you have offended someone is if they plain out tell you. It is a difficult conversation to have, so be open to anyone who is brave enough to come by and comment.
Be respectful. A conversation around cultural appropriation may come from a hurtful place for someone in a marginalized culture. You might have struck a nerve for no fault of your own, but that does not diminish the feelings of the offended.
Be patient. Someone hurt by your actions may not choose the best words to address the issue.
Listen. If you don’t know how to react, don’t. Keep your ears open and absorb the information. Emotional or factual, whatever they tell you, make sure you understand before you react.
Don’t be scared to say you are seeing the subject from that perspective for the first time and you need your time to gather your thoughts.
Version 2: You do not feel support for your actions.
As explained above, a conversation around cultural appropriation is difficult to start. While public support on the subject is growing, so is the tiredness from the restraints on personal freedoms because of the rules of being politically correct.
Some people would prefer to close their eyes to a small violation as opposed to making a spectacle of themselves, they just wouldn’t want to be perceived as too sensitive or weak and will keep their opinion silent.
But you can feel heads turn, attitudes change and opinions exchange behind your back. Keep your eyelids peeled.
When you ask ‘Do you like my new hairdo?’, was the response unexpected? Don’t be afraid to start the conversation yourself. Don’t expect it to be easy, don’t expect it to be simple.
Version 3: You can draw parallel
You are watching the news, browsing Twitter, or surfing on the internet and suddenly you see a cultural appropriation story that sparked public outrage. And you can’t help but think:
‘Oh god, that looks an awful lot like something I did once’.
You. Are. Guilty.
What to do
Step 1. Cease and desist.
Whatever it is try and stop it as soon as possible. So you bought a nice cultural dress for an event and then you discovered it was offensive to use that piece of clothing. It is not the right setting, location or occasion and someone told you it is inappropriate.
What do you do? If you still have several days before the event, the right thing to do is change your plans.
Yes, you already bought the dress, you had your inspiration, and you were very excited. You had the best of intentions. You did nothing wrong so far. Nothing intentionally, that is. So you fall in the grey area.
Continuing on once you are aware of people’s feelings about your decision would be a clear step in the wrong.
Step 2. Analyze.
Now is the time for some self-reflection. Assess the damage. Cultural appropriation falls on a spectrum. And the spectrum is everything between EMBRACING a culture and USING it.
Here are several questions you should ask yourself:
- Did you know you were borrowing elements from another culture?
- Did you stay ignorant to the meaning of that element to the culture?
- If representatives of that culture used those elements in their everyday life could they be punished or frowned upon?
- Could you have had a representatives of that culture use those elements instead of you, but didn’t?
- Did you present the culture in a wrong or hurtful way?
- Did you benefit or profit from it?
The more ‘yes’ answers you have, the worse the damage you have done.
Step 3. Make amends.
It is important to remember that the scope of your actions to fix the situation must be proportionate to the crime.
If anyone demanded apologies from you, apologize. A good person can do a bad thing. Just because you made a mistake that does not mean anything bad about your character. Don’t be afraid to admit you were wrong. That is the least you could do.
Educate yourself. The difference between embracing a culture and using it is often the understanding of the whole picture behind the pieces. Learn the history with all of the facts.
Release the profits. If you have profited from your wrong deed and you can afford it, you should give back. There are organizations that take care to protect the dignity, the rights and the integrity of the culture and heritage of different marginalized groups. Big or small, donate.
Help fellow culprits. As it became clear, a conversation about cultural appropriation is not always easy.
If you see someone overstepping the line, don’t leave them be ignorant.
What not to do
Do not defend your actions.
Most often those accused of cultural appropriation, without the power of foresight, would originally say their actions were led by the need of self-expression, looking for something new and different…
Truth is, some communities have heard too much reasoning and too little apologies.
They live in the same world as you do and they know there is different levels of being wrong. They are well aware you might have gone about it with no bad intentions at all. Defending your actions instead of apologizing right away makes you that much more wrong.
Do not make a spectacle.
Once you have realized you are guilty of cultural appropriation, take a deep breath before you take any action. Remember, your reaction and your self-imposed repercussions need to be proportionate to the crime.
If it is possible, try and reverse what you have done, reduce the consequences and speak to whoever it Is that might have told you they are offended. Keep it on the down low.
Celebrities are often accused in public of cultural appropriation and that is why their apologies are public. Do not go on social media to explain yourself, unless that is where you got busted.
Do not swing to the other extreme.
While it is helpful to educate yourself more fully about the culture you are interested in, make sure you keep it sane. It is still not your culture. Misappropriating one element of it without the total understanding will not be made better by completely diving in the deep and losing your own cultural identity in theirs.
And it is not your fight. Once you have realized how cultural appropriation is wrong and how white people unfairly benefit in situations where people of color are mistreated, you might be tempted to raise your voice against the ignorance.
But don’t. Make sure you are supportive of the common efforts towards sensitivity rather than preach a lesson that is not yours to teach. The voices of the mistreated should be the strongest. Support them instead of outvoicing them.
It is a complex question.
Involving years of history and dynamic international relations. Sometimes, the decisions of a few have triggered events that lead to intercultural conflicts and caused trauma that has lasted for generations and generations.
And yet those same events have also brought on a process of globalization where cultures get closer and enrich each other. And there is a way to do it right.
It is up to individuals to accept each other and each other’s cultures. And not just in their fault-free movie-magic versions, but also with the history and with the strain it is still putting on its people.
To accept the good and the bad from the past and the present, and live together with understanding and harmony.
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