Cultural Appropriation: You Can Look But You Can’t Touch

 

I am writing this article in light of recent pop culture events centered around the topic of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is a frequently seen practice, that is usually carried out by racially privileged individuals. If you scroll through the Instagram accounts of the Kardashian or Jenner sisters, you will see plenty of examples of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is a concept many have difficulty grasping or are simply desensitized towards. Usually, I remain silent on this topic because it is highly controversial and often difficult to navigate, but I can’t any longer. Cultural appropriation affects the lives of many oppressed individuals; It is important that everyone understands the harms of appropriation.

But Before discussing the topic of cultural appropriation, I first need to define what culture is. The Sociologist Nicky Lisa Cole defines culture as the practices, beliefs, ideas, values, traditions, rituals, language, speech, and material objects which are central to the life of any given group of people. Culture is an essential part of our identity. Cultural appropriation is when you take aspects of a culture you don’t belong to and use them without permission.

Cultural appropriation is a racist act usually carried out by those who benefit from racial privilege in society. A Huffington Post Article on Cultural Appropriation described the problematic effects of cultural appropriation asserting that “Using aspects of another culture from a position of privilege is a means of additional exploitation in that it disregards the shared experiences that led to the development of the culture in question and uses ideas and traditions for their benefit.” [1] Appropriating culture is most problematic when the culture is being taken from an oppressed marginalized group. Cultural appropriation is done for personal gain by someone without substantial knowledge of the culture they are appropriating. In the process, these individuals belittle the culture they are appropriating.

Cultural Appropriation is not always black and white, there are some gray areas and blurred lines. Because of this, there have been many attempts to delegitimize the concept. I would like to address some of the primary justifications of cultural appropriation. Many individuals assert that because America is a “melting pot,” sharing cultures is a part of our way of life. However most sociologists have dispelled this idea and instead prefer to view the blending of cultures like a salad. In a salad the ingredients keep their own distinct shapes and flavors, some being more prominent than others. Viewing America like a melting pot would imply that all cultures are valued equally, which isn’t the case as we all know. There is the dominant white culture which many minority groups are forced to assimilate to and then there are the cultures of minority groups.

Another blurred line is the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. A Cultural exchange occurs when two groups who aren’t oppressing each other share cultural items, ideas, and traditions with each other in a respectful and informed way. Cultural exchange is willingful sharing of culture and the acceptance of another. It cannot occur between an oppressor and the oppressed. Because when an oppressor takes from an oppressed group without permission that is an act of theft and exploitation. [2]

Because there are some gray areas involving cultural appropriation it would be difficult for me to talk about the appropriation of cultures I don’t belong to because my knowledge is limited. There are some cultural appropriation discussions about the bindi, and henna, that would be difficult for me to make judgments about because I am not South Asian. However when it comes to the appropriation of Black culture, I can engage in a more in-depth discussion.

What drove me to write this article is the blatant and disrespectful appropriation of black culture in entertainment, media, and fashion. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s when Hip Hop and Rap Music became mainstream, many white Americans started to adapt elements of black culture for their own enjoyment. In the 2010’s more and more white people began wearing clothes, and hairstyles associated with black culture. By 2013, the fashion world had adopted durags, cornrows, and even dashikis.

Black culture is derived from a shared struggle and is used to affirm our existence and humanity. Black culture has long been ridiculed and chastised when practiced by black people. But when white people appropriated it, it became edgy and cool. The racial privilege white people have allows them to benefit from black culture and exaggerate it to promote negative stereotypes that black people then, in turn, have to deal with. White privilege allows them to benefit from black culture while simultaneously avoiding the racism that comes with having a Black identity.

The problem with the appropriation of black culture is that it is deemed edgy, cool, and funny when used by a person who is not apart of the culture, but leads to racists ideas or generalizations when used by members of that race. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator does not understand the deep significance of the culture they are partaking in. 

A lot of prominent figures on social media and most recently Amandla Stenberg the 16-year-old girl who educated Kylie Jenner on cultural appropriation have posed a very relevant question, “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?” [3]

If you are going to partake in a culture that is not your own it is important to think critically about what you’re doing. Are you using a religious symbol or a sacred item? Are you enforcing negative stereotypes or generalizations? Are you informed about the significance of the culture you are using? You may not have malice intentions when appropriating another culture, but your actions inevitably contribute to the widespread exploitation of people of color’s cultures. The culture they value greatly and have been trying to preserve for centuries.

References

[1] Duca, Lauren. “Cultural Appropriation 101, Featuring Geisha Katy Perry And The Great Wave Of Asian Influence.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 14 July 2015.

[2] “What Is Cultural Appropriation? | Feminist Fridays.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 14 July 2015.

[3] “Amandla Stenberg: Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 14 July 2015.

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