By Counterpoint Staff
“Cultural appropriation ... refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group. That’s why cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural exchange, when people share mutually with each other—because cultural exchange lacks that systemic power dynamic.” —Everyday Feminism
Kelechi: To answer the first question, no matter the intent, cultural appropriation is harmful because it trivializes violent historical oppression and perpetuates racist stereotypes. This happens when members of the dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group. Whether the asker likes it or not, dressing up as a culture means that you are treating the culture like it’s a costume, which is inherently problematic.
Rachele: I feel like the main difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is history. The reason some things are cultural appropriation rather than exchange is because they draw on negative stereotypes and/or because they have been used to oppress the people of that culture. It’s cultural appropriation when a white person wears their hair a certain way, or adopts a traditional look from another culture, and the people who created that look were not given opportunities—or were specifically negatively targeted because of them by white people—and now that white people like it, it’s considered “cool” without giving any credit to where it comes from (and continues to still negatively impact said original culture, even though it’s now been “adopted” by white people).
Parul: Dressing up as Belle and dressing up Pocahontas, given their racial backgrounds, would amount to different things. Pocahontas’ Native American identity is central to her character and story, while Belle is known as Belle for her specific romantic story in Beauty and the Beast. So, in choosing to dress as Pocahontas, you do actually adopt some part of a cultural identity and perpetuate a specific representation of an otherwise little represented group.
As for questions about whether a POC dressing up as Mulan also counts as cultural appropriation, I think that at the heart of cultural appropriation lies a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of culture, which is something anybody could do. To me, an Indian girl and a white girl wearing bindis at Coachella are really doing the same thing. Anybody of any race, operating under a paradigm where the histories and representations of culture and cultural objects are not respected, could be culturally appropriating.
Midori: If appreciation is clearly different from appropriation, does that mean that if a person (specifically a white person, I guess, since it seems more controversial for them to appropriate from any culture) goes out of their way to immerse themselves and truly learn and appreciate the culture, they can then allowed to wear the clothing and adopt the customs of that culture? Does such a threshold for that even exist?
I just remembered noticing that the Buddhist monk for Wellesley is a white man and my initial reaction was “Whoa? Is that cultural appropriation?” But if he was accepted into a monastery by other monks and he patiently became one as well, then it makes sense for his work and effort to be recognized. Similarly, I think that professors who teach classes on cultures they are not inherently part of, but did spend the time and effort to immerse themselves in, should probably be recognized as practicing appreciation rather than appropriation.
However, one should also recognize that there is a history (in America, at least) of majority groups silencing minority voices—for example, some Texan textbooks portray African American slavery as merely “bringing over workers,” and some textbooks never portray the extent to which European colonizers destroyed native civilizations to gain land. While white people and people of any ethnic group are capable of cultural appreciation (whatever the qualifications for appreciation are), and more recently of supporting minority-centered social justice movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, I think they should also remember that it’s important to let the voices and experiences of the people in that culture come through whenever possible.
Victoria: Part of the difference between appropriation and appreciation is also that appreciation is… well, it’s smarter. It’s “appreciative”—a word that carries some sense of receptiveness. It’s the ability to observe. To observe more about something, to see the broader range of meanings and possibilities it carries. Appropriation often simplifies or reduces what the purpose of some aesthetic choice was/is—like, if you belong to a group marginalized by the dominant culture, then a lot of the time art-work (emphasizing the work part) is a tool of resistance. You gotta carve out a language for yourself. When someone who belongs to said privileged group, who hasn’t had to fight the way you have to get your art, your words, or your point of view deemed valid—when someone like that walks along and just picks up whatever you’ve made, it really flattens the many dimensions of power and individuality that are embedded in what you’ve made. It isn’t appreciative, because it fails—in the literal sense of the word—to “appreciate” exactly what exists within the work (whether that work is an object—like a dress—or something immaterial—like a ritual, or the way one does one’s hair).
We should address here the fact that “appropriation” is maybe not the most productive term (even when coupled with “cultural”). All art is appropriation, and, in a way, so is all culture. Each generation appropriates and re-envisions. (That’s part of the reason older people are always writing thinkpieces about the doom carried by the coming generation.) As a writer, photographer, whatever, you’re always looking at those who came before you, or those who work contemporaneously with you—you’re always trying to see what’s good and how you can use it. So, a word like “appropriation,” which suggests to its listener that stealing is not permissible, full stop, is not going to be very useful.
I don’t know what a better term would be, frankly. Maybe there isn’t one and we have to work with what we’ve got. Maybe it is better (just a proposal, an idea) to talk in terms of limits? This feels like a better term for what I see a lot of my friends doing. It implies a degree of complicatedness—like living in a culture is navigating a field of sorts—that “appropriation,” in its binary, this-is-right, that-is-wrong logic doesn’t quite cover. I know people who are white and will happily listen to Drake, but won’t say the n-word. That seems to me like a good way of negotiating—of perceiving (or defining—to what extent are the two the same?), and then abiding by limits.
Also, in response to the Disney question. I feel like to tackle this one we have to think about Disney as an institution, and as a pervasive source of the American (and global) cultural vocabulary. Like, we are so steeped in this stuff! Almost everyone is! And of course, like many many white-dominated, Euro/US-centric cultural institutions, the empire is (well, first, an empire, which should automatically trouble us—but also) historically inextricable from a difficult history of grade-A oppression, marginalization, and general ickiness. And so, with regard to wearing a Disney princess costume... you can’t touch something that dirty without getting sticky fingers. Even if you’re not the one who made the mess in the first place. You know what I mean?
I also really, really want to address this first question we get in the survey. I feel like this person perceives the poll question as a sort of personal attack, and like we’re saying that dressing up in what they thought was an innocuous costume reflects badly on their moral character. This is reflected pretty clearly when they say that this type of question treats those who do this as though they posess “malicious intentions.” The important distinction here is that of cause and consequence. I think because this is such a heated issue for a lot of people (naturally so—most people don’t like being accused of doing racist things. I don’t!!!) they forget what really is a simple—though fundamental—difference. You can inadvertently cause bad things to happen.
Part of the reason you can do so is by mistakenly perceiving powerful things as being harmless. No, not everything is a political stance—but a lot of things are, and what this person seems to be doing is misjudging the effect that cultural attitudes and rituals (I mean it figuratively, but I guess Halloween is a “ritual” in the sense that it’s descended from Pagan rituals) have on tangible things. Admittedly, a single, isolated Halloween costume that borrows from a historically marginalized cultural tradition is not going to destroy anyone’s life. But a whole cluster, or culture of people who think that doing this is okay is unlikely to be conducive to a dominant culture that recognizes this Other one in all its complexity.
Staff: Clearly, cultural appropriation is a more complex topic than we can begin to define here. We hope that our discussion has been thought-provoking for you, and in the spirit of sparking dialogues on campus, we hope you continue this discussion with each other (and possibly even submit your thoughts to Counterpoint, if you feel so inclined)!
From October 2015 Issue