Cultural Appropriation

Among new political correctness movements and dubious Halloween costumes, the subject of cultural appropriation has dominated conversations about social norms and ethical behavior. Proven by years of sociological debate, the concept of cultural appropriation with clear parameters is highly elusive.

According to Susan Scafidi, author of “Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law,” cultural appropriation is the “taking of intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.”

While this definition could technically include anything from eating ethnic food to speaking a foreign language, most serious intellectuals agree that these actions are innocuous. Harmful appropriation goes far beyond appreciating or vaguely participating in a different culture. Cultural appropriation occurs when members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture that has been systematically oppressed by that group. This cultural interaction creates a harmful power dynamic.

Cultural appropriation is different from cultural exchange (sharing mutually) and assimilation (adapting to a dominant culture) because cultural appropriation occurs when a power dynamic exists.

“I think a lot of people confuse cultural appropriation with cultural sharing,” said Alliana Salanguit, economics major at UAA. “Even though some may argue that cultural appropriation is a way of appreciating another culture, I find that to be false… cultural appropriation fails to appreciate something of significance in its original cultural context.”

Even with some intellectual guidelines, the issue of cultural appropriation has a lot of gray areas. Most groups or individuals who speak out about cultural appropriation draw on personal experiences.

Cultural appropriation gets particular attention during Halloween. Ohio University’s peer-education organization “Students Teaching About Racism in Society” launched the “My Culture Isn’t a Costume” poster campaign in 2013 to draw attention to costumes that invest in hurtful or untrue stereotypes about culture. Pictures of people wearing ‘blackface,’ dressing up as a ‘Muslim terrorist,’ wearing costumes that hypersexualize women of color and wearing traditional or religious clothes in a disrespectful or unobservant way are all examples featured. The posters are compelling — a person that actually belongs to that culture is posed in front of the offensive pictures to create a powerful contrast.

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“It can be harmful to the less dominant culture because you’re taking their culture, what they believe in, what they’ve known, they’re history, and you’re twisting it,” Rachel Rotola, nursing major, said.

Buzzfeed published an insightful video featuring actual Native Americans trying on “Native American” themed costumes, and then had them explain how and why the costumes made them uncomfortable and why they were offensive.

“Cultural appropriation, though meaning to bring awareness of other cultures, usually fails in that and only further perpetuates the prejudices and stigmas that certain cultures face,” Salanguit said.

However, some people think that claims about cultural appropriation are unfounded.

“I get where it’s coming from, I just think there are bigger issues,” said Eli Matthews, biological sciences major. “Like the whole Redskins thing, what’s offensive about that? I get where it comes from, but at the same time people just need to step back a little bit. I guess it still matters, but if you compare it to issues like with ISIS and Boko Haram, that [cultural appropriation] really pales in comparison.”

The conversation about cultural appropriation seems to concede that cultural appropriation is principally legitimate, and is dominated by debate concerning specific examples of appropriation and whether or not they are permissible.

Obviously, context matters. If someone is genuinely attempting to appreciate a culture in a mindful way, it’s unlikely that it will be considered harmful. People experience culture in different ways, so it’s important to examine situations with an open mind to both positions of the socio-cultural conflict.

With that said, contemporary intellectual theories have identified some contextual factors that influence the severity of appropriative actions. The following questions aim to conceptualize the social detriments of cultural appropriation and provide a framework to evaluate whether or not something is cultural appropriation:

1) Is the use of culture reinforcing harmful or untrue cultural stereotypes?

Depictions through the media, literature or filmography of the colonization of North America often paint indigenous people as savages, as passive, mystical characters, or as entirely absent. If a costume is insinuating that people from the Middle East are violent terrorists, or a fashion trend seems to reinforce the belief that Native Americans are primitive and under-developed, it’s probably culturally harmful.

2) Does the use of culture generalize or marginalize the culture or peoples?

This is one of the more nuanced factors and is largely left up to interpretation on a case-by-case-basis.

“One that comes to mind is a few months ago when Zendaya wore her hair in dread locks and a news source said ‘she probably smells like weed’ or something along the lines of that,” Salanguit said. “However, when Lady Gaga and Kylie Jenner got dreadlocks they were praised for pulling off such exotic looks.”

If it ignores historical injustice or delegitimizes the culture’s traditions or religion, it’s probably culturally harmful.

3) Is the use of culture over-sexualizing the people of that culture?

Think Karlie Kloss and the headdress; the Victoria’s Secret Model walked down the runway in a floor length traditional Native American headdress replica and not much else. ‘Sexy Latina’, ‘sexy Geisha’, and ‘Asian school girl’ costumes are also often criticized for being problematic in terms of cultural appropriation as well as promoting harmful hyper-sexualization of women in general. If a costume promotes the sexualization of women of color or reinforces the view of certain groups of women as sexual objects, it’s probably culturally harmful.


4) Does the use of culture reinforce oppressive cultural power dynamics?

‘Redskin’ was a racial slur used throughout the 20th century and is directly associated with the practice of paying bounties for killing Native Americans. If the use of a culture is a replication of historical oppression and discrimination, it’s probably culturally harmful.

5) Is an individual or group protesting the use of the culture in that way?

The National Congress of American Indians has been protesting the use of the term ‘Redskins’ as a National Football League team name in 1968. Muslim women have consistently protested the sexualization of traditional wear by people like Khloe Kardashian. Rotola touched on appropriation that people of specific cultures reject.

“I think you could say the same thing for the Japanese kimono, where in American culture they are seen as something completely different from their traditional use, which was very heavy and covered you from shoulders to toes, and we don’t see it [kimonos] that way at all,” Rotola said. “I do know people from Japan that are very into their history with kimonos and find that offensive.”

If culture is being used in a way that makes people of that culture publicly uncomfortable, it’s probably culturally harmful.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that individual choices and behaviors add up to become social trends and cultural attitudes. Recognizing and honoring different cultures is an important part of being accepting of all peoples’ identities. At the end of the day, being culturally insensitive hurts people’s feelings. If it’s hard to tell if a culture is being used in a disrespectful way, Google it, ask someone. Ultimately, being mindful and respectful are legitimate guiding principles for socio-cultural exchanges.

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