Questions Concerning Cultural Appropriation
The Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture” . The major controversy around cultural appropriation in society is centered around the second clause to this definition; the “especially” that keeps the line blurry between appreciating a culture that isn’t your own and appropriating it . Particularly in the United States, non-POC (people of color) have been “borrowing” staples from other cultures for quite some time: Eminem has worn durags, Beyoncé has dressed as a Geisha, and Victoria’s Secret models have worn Native American headdresses with feathers that graze their lace-covered “bombshell bras.” Those who aren’t outraged by these circumstances have defended them with the statement: That’s not fair! Why can’t I appreciate cultures I’m not a part of?
There are two main problems with this statement. The first is in the word “appreciate,” because it masks the word appropriate with a similar sound and a positive connotation. The second, and most prominent, is the ambiguity around what is considered a respectful love for another culture and taking advantage of it. Society has been bombarded with the question: is this cultural appropriation? Is Ariana Grande’s spray-tan cultural appropriation? Is what I’m doing cultural appropriation? As described by Nadra Kareem Nittle, “in the United States, cultural appropriation almost always involves members of the dominant culture (or those who identify with it) “borrowing” from the cultures of minority groups” (www.thoughtco.com). Once again, there is an abundance of ambiguity around the topic of appropriation. People are confused by the words “almost always,” and ambiguous quotation marks around the word “borrowing.” If almost-always is the majority taking from the minority, does the “almost” include minority-cultures borrowing from majority cultures in the term cultural appropriation? What almost-always does is give more ammunition to the majority to continue taking advantage of different cultural practices because it doesn’t assign responsibility to anyone. Society can no longer cushion white people by saying “sorry, you cannot dress up as a Native American on Halloween; BUT you can probably get away with this questionable thing that might be considered appropriation!” Society needs to expect minorities and the appropriators to engage in a dialogue that outlines what is respectful, what is loving, and end the problem of misunderstanding simply by talking about it.
What is needed to end a divisive culture of taking and stealing is clear communication of what is respectful and what is demeaning. There must be an end to the safe-word “borrowing”; replace it with “exploiting.” There needs to be an end to wearing another culture as a Halloween costume; replace it with dinners in communities of different ethnicities who share food from the cultures that shaped them. There needs to be an end between the feud of “merry christmas” and “happy holidays” and replace it with celebrating holidays with families of other religions. Cultural appropriation can no longer be a word that people throw at one another or avoid completely; it must be discussed to trump the divisiveness.