Much is written today about the dangers and effects of cultural appropriation and the internet is filled with posts that call out certain stories as evidence of cultural appropriation and tweets that “shame” those who are considered to be guilty.
While cultural appropriation is to be avoided, cultural appreciation is a goal that increases our understanding of each other and that increases peace and respect within our community. Cultural appreciation gives a warm feeling to the viewer; cultural appropriation is unsettling, to a greater or lesser degree.
Even if you think it’s easy to tell the difference in cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation in others, what about when you look in the mirror?
Generally, cultural appropriation can be defined as actions that are somewhat crass, unfeeling, and Ego-centered – actions that say “look at me” and leave a slight uneasy feeling in the viewer. Cultural appreciation, on the other hand, is loving, respectful, and honoring; it promotes the idea of community and imparts a “feel good” response.
There is a difference between studying culture and appropriating culture. Cultural Crossroads encourages everyone to engage in cultural appreciation – learning, reading and enjoying performances and demonstrations of different cultures, attending cultural fairs and festivals and approaching those cultures with an open mind and the awe of a child.
Attending an ethnic festival, watching the performances, tasting the different foods, even buying and wearing articles of clothing from the countries represented – there are excellent ways to learn about and enjoy the variation in cultures, in a respectful manner.
Look at today’s TV commercials through the lens of appropriation/appreciation, especially commercials featuring people of color: are those people portrayed in a natural setting and situation or are they dressed and directed as stereotypes of their community? Contrast the auto insurance commercial of an African-American family on a car trip with the candy commercial in which all the actors are African-American rappers with large boom-boxes and loud music. If you can substitute actors of different races and ethnicities and the premise no longer works, it’s likely cultural appropriation.
One example of cultural appreciation can be found in international folk dance groups, where people come together to learn and enjoy dances from other countries and cultures in a community setting. As part of that process, they also learn about those cultures and the history of those cultures. An example is the “ethnic night” parties that used to take place at international folk dancing in Kansas City, MO. An “ethnic night” was built around a specific culture (like “Greek night” or “Slavic night”) and would start with a potluck dinner, with foods from the chosen culture, followed by a cultural presentation (like a slide show or lecture focusing on an aspect of that culture) and everyone would participate in dances from the chosen culture. People were also encouraged to dress in national dress of the chosen culture and, for weeks prior to the event, people would pour over a traveling library of ethnic cookbooks and costume reference material. Attention was given to authentic information. Even without a specific party, if you visit an international dance group, you will find women dressed in full skirts and men in dance boots, because the dress is informed by the culture and the dance is informed by the dress. This is cultural appreciation at its best – learning about a culture, sharing that knowledge and gaining a greater understanding and appreciation of the history, music, dress, dance and food of a culture.
Halloween presents a particularly “slippery slope” of potential cultural appropriation because of the nature of Halloween parties and Halloween costumes: we want to look good, have fun, and be acknowledged by others as creative – it’s all about us. Contrast the international dance experience described above with a typical Halloween party where people buy (not research and sew) costumes that are very loosely based on the dress of a particular ethnic group – or, more likely, the “Hollywood” idea of that dress – with no concern or care for learning anything of the surrounding culture. When the Halloween costume is also “tailored” to be a so-called “sexy version” of the real dress, the action becomes insulting, as well as uninformed. If one wears a Halloween “version” of ethnic dress while acting in ways antithetical to that culture, it is even more disturbing, rude and insulting.
When Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, was interviewed by Alia E. Dastagir of USA TODAY, she said: “Do your homework. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes figuratively, before you do so actually. And think about how someone else might feel if you were dressed up as the sexy or slutty version of them for Halloween. … Think about whether or not you’re turning someone’s everyday 21st century culture into a caricature.”
Look to those whose culture is being “portrayed” to see how it feels as well as how it looks. In this context, examples are likely to be more informative than philosophical discussion:
- Cultural Crossroads produces programs which seek to teach about aspects of culture and some of those programs also include hands-on craft activities for children. Those activities do not occur in a cultural vacuum – when we teach youngsters how to form a diya, for example (using safe, battery-operated candles in place of oil and flame), we are not promoting a “hobby” activity, but teaching about the culture of India, the festival of Diwali and the meaning of the diya in the context of the festival.
- An outdoor party with a “luau” theme can be done respectfully, if the food is researched and the music is chosen properly. If the idea of a Hawaiian-theme party is an excuse to party in abbreviated dress, with mock “hula” dances, that would tend to be more cultural appropriation than cultural appreciation. Use this test: would you feel comfortable inviting a Native Hawaiian to that luau party?
- If you are hosting a Halloween party where everyone is asked to “dress like a Gypsy” and the skirts are short and people are pretending to tell fortunes, would you feel comfortable if a person of Roma descent were to attend?
Look to the native peoples and see if they are tolerant…or amused…or angry.
Examples abound of cultural appropriation of Native American culture, from purchasing and misusing mis-named “peace” pipes to the copying of sacred rituals. Hollywood’s appropriation of Native American culture is long-standing and well-known (white actors dressed as “warriors,” cavorting around a fire in a way that Natives would not move, insulting story lines and dialogue). And, then, there are the sports teams, with names that mimic or insult Native cultures.
Cultural appropriation is particularly potential when the culture being “copied” has traditionally been subjected to discrimination or colonization by the dominant culture. Cultural appropriation is one more insult, one more broken treaty, one more stereotyped characterization. “(B)orrowing may become appropriation when it reinforces historically exploitative relationships,” writes Olufunmilayo Arewa of the University of California-Irvine in HuffPost.
It is possible – even desirable – to learn about other cultures in a respectful manner. This is, in fact, the very idea and basis for Cultural Crossroads. In the United States, we live in a diverse, pluralistic society, composed of people from many different cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Diversity is our strength and we are stronger when we stand together in mutual respect, understanding and appreciating our differences while united in our similarities and shared goals. When we move from appropriation to appreciation, those shared goals become shared bonds … and that’s what makes America the great place it is!