Three or four months ago the trailer for the movie “Dear White People” popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. As the premiere date has grown near I have seen more and more trailers, and I am so excited for it’s release. The trailers are hilarious and they do an incredible job pointing out many of the ways that white people have taken over black culture and adapted it as their own with brash disregard to it’s origin (also known as cultural appropriation…).
I’ve always been curious as to what cultural appropriation really is. I remember last year Selena Gomez was criticized for being culturally insensitive for wearing a Bindi religious symbol while performing “Come and Get it” and the term cultural appropriation was thrown around. I also remember hearing people scoff at the proposition that Iggy Azeala and Macklemore are the Queen and King of rap and heard more murmurs of cultural appropriation. I recently read an article ranting about how the entire idea for the Color Run is stolen from Holi, an Indian festival. There was also the controversy about the Cleveland Indians, and the large group of people who wanted a name change.
According to Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University, in an article in Everyday Feminism, cultural appropriation is “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”
Or simply: stealing what you want from a culture that is not your own, typically in an offensive way, and not giving credit.
Another Everyday Feminism article dives into why a lot of white people struggle with cultural appropriation accusations; claiming “why can’t I just twerk like Miley?” or “I’m a hipster, feathers are so in!” or “I’m just expressing myself!”
But the issue is, as is explained in the Everyday Feminism article, “We tend to think of this as cultural exchange when really, it’s no more an exchange than pressuring your neighbors to adopt your ideals while stealing their family heirlooms. Westerners are used to pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return.”
Every dentist’s favorite holiday is coming up: Halloween. This holiday is renowned for rampant cultural appropriation. In an article by Everyday Feminism they explain that if your costume is racially, ethnically, or culturally based it is probably racist, especially if you don’t belong to that group of people. Would you wear that costume of a sexy geisha around Japanese people? The costume of the Mexican man with sombrero around a group of people of Hispanic descent? The sexy Native American costume in the presence of Native Americans?? Blackface in front of a group of African Americans?…No, or at least hopefully not. It would be offensive to them, because you would be twisting a part of their culture to be humorous, or sexualizing it.
Again, in the article they explain that “regardless of whether your costume selection was done with innocent intentions or not, your costume can still perpetuate harmful stereotypes and stigmas, which then welcomes more aggressive racist attitudes. That is: Even if you don’t think you’re vehemently racist, you can still perpetuate racism.”
Using someone else’s culture as a form of expression is a privilege (hello dreadlocks, corn rows, etc…). This isn’t to say you can’t partake in another person’s culture. In the inextricably linked world we live in I would say it is almost impossible to abstain from partaking in other cultures. But it matters that people with privilege in this arena take care with how we interact and exchange culture with other races, and groups of people.
Culture exchange is a real possibility. Everyday Feminism explained that “..cultural exchange can look like – engaging with a culture as a respectful and humble guest, invitation only. Don’t overstay your welcome. Don’t pretend to be a part of the household. Don’t make yourself out to be an honored guest whom the householders should be grateful to entertain and educate for hours on end.”
I have no gallant ending to this post but I do want to challenge you (and myself) to think about this topic while shopping for Halloween costumes, participating in the Color Run, and engaging social media.
I also want your feedback. What did I miss? What are your thoughts on this topic? Have you experience cultural appropriation?
Thanks for reading this piece.