Cultural appropriation

Photo by Nithya Jameshenry Student Publications

When you think of festivals like Coachella or holidays like Halloween, one inevitable factor to account for is cultural appropriation. Naturally, there are many people who continue to live in ignorance citing “it isn’t that serious” as their mantra, even in an age where educating oneself is more accessible and comprehensive than ever, but cultural appropriation is an issue that has never ceased to plague our society. 

Some people argue that cultural appropriation is beneficial and that borrowing from and sharing other people’s cultures is a means to build community and stopping hate at the source. However, the very definition of appropriation is contrary to this ideal. 

Cultural appropriation occurs when the adoption of another culture is offensive or stereotypical and is often tasteless in nature. Additionally, it refers to the unacknowledged use or taking inspiration from another culture.

One example of cultural appropriation can be seen in the use of African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE. Elements of AAVE often trickle into pop culture or commonly used slang. 

However, the use of AAVE, especially to express aggression or dramatics (as it is often utilized in pop culture), plays into harmful stereotypes that perpetuate oppressive ideologies toward Black Americans. 

Another example of this is with the highly popular fashion company, Urban Outfitters. In 2016, Urban Outfitters had to settle with the Navajo Tribe after using their name illegally in a line of clothing. The line of clothing included items like “Navajo Hipster Panties” and a “Navajo Print Flask”. 

In the past, Urban Outfitters has received criticism and push back for some of their other items; some of which have appropriated Hindu imagery and other items that have made a mockery of Indigenous cultures. If you shop for Halloween costumes around autumn, you will surely run across some costumes that are terribly offensive. 

Trying to dress up in Native American attire for Halloween and, even worse, making it “sexy” is wholly unacceptable. This is especially true given the existing issues in the United States with sexual and physical violence against Indigenous women. 

Given the circumstances and political climate surrounding Indigenous rights and issues, there is no doubt that costumes such as these are inappropriate and, by no means, are an appreciation of Indigenous culture.

Things like wearing an Afro wig or wearing one’s hair in dreadlocks or cornrows can also be highly insensitive. And, of course, there is blackface which is a deeply offensive practice; I’m talking to you, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau!

There are instances of cultural appreciation where taking inspiration from other cultures can be a way to honor them. An example of this is with trying new foods or attempting to cook various different cuisines. Another might be to try your hand at learning a new language or traveling to and exploring a new country. 

In some contexts, however, the line between appropriation and appreciation begins to blur. Fetishization of Asian, especially East Asian, culture is an issue that has been rampant as of late. It has become more difficult to delineate the line between appreciation of East Asian food and media (such as manga or anime) as opposed to obsession or fetishization of culture or aesthetics. Use of South Asian, Hindu and Buddhist ideologies and practices such as karma or even yoga can quickly devolve into questionable fixations. 

With all of this in mind, it is extremely important to be cognizant and respectful regarding how taking inspiration from other cultures may be taken or construed, most notably by those who hail from that culture. Wearing Native headdresses to a music festival or putting your hair into protective hairstyles when it is not meant for you is unnecessary and offensive. 

As Black History Month comes to a close, it is the perfect time to reflect on whether our actions are respectful of the communities and cultures around us. And if they aren’t, it’s time to make a change!