We frequently hear of celebs being accused of cultural appropriation for sporting certain hair styles, wearing certain clothing, acting a certain way. Then there are stories about more average people like you and I, such as the girl who wore a traditional Chinese dress to prom (read about it here). The Internet debates always hotly ensue, with plenty in both camps. I’m not here to argue or debate but instead, to spark thoughtful dialogue. Yes this is America, but it’s still possible to respectfully disagree with one another- if you’re open-minded. As a POC (I consider anyone non-white to be a person of color), this is a subject I feel strongly about, so here are my thoughts and why.
What exactly is the definition of “cultural appropriation”? The Cambridge Dictionary defines it 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”1. Perhaps a more commonplace reference, Wikipedia: “Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture”2.
I find truth in both of these definitions. It’s appropriation when you knowingly take something from another culture, without acknowledging that it’s not your own, and without educating yourself on its history and cultural significance. For instance, I often see people walking around with tattoos of Chinese characters. When I ask them what the characters say, some of them don’t even know or remember. I feel some type of way about that. You carved and dyed my language into your skin because you thought it’d make you look cool, yet can’t even tell me what it means? How is that cool? It makes you look ignorant. Not saying you have to study the entire Chinese language- but the least you could do is learn to read and pronounce the characters that supposedly mean so much to you. It’s called respect.
I like the Wikipedia definition as well, because it speaks volumes about why it is done- typically, minority cultures do not adopt elements of the majority culture because it is entertaining to us. It’s usually because it helps shield us from discrimination- because we’ve been oppressed for years. On the other hand, when the majority culture does it, it’s usually either for entertainment, or profit.
There are exceptions. Once in a blue moon, I stumble upon someone who adopts another culture’s customs or clothing, because they’re actually in love with that culture. Sometimes they’ve actually studied the language out of interest, or lived in that country for a while. I respect that and can relate. I listen to reggaeton music and am in love with Latin American culture- people tell me I’m a natural bachatera, I’ve been to a couple of the countries, and I make effort to learn the language from my friends.
What’s my definition of cultural appropriation? “Cultural appropriation is the act of assuming elements of another culture- either for ignorant entertainment, or for selfish profit that does not give back to the culture from which it was taken.”
It’d be wrong if, say, Nike or some other big corporation were to start manufacturing and selling dashikis, a type of traditional wear that originated in West Africa. Why? Because a non-African company would be capitalizing off African culture, and taking all the profit for itself (not to mention the garments wouldn’t even be authentic).
There’s nothing wrong with admiring and appreciating the beauty of another culture’s art. That’s probably why lately dashikis have been increasing in fashion- people are realizing that the designs are different, but beautiful. (For a great article on the history and politics of the dashiki, click here!) I’ve always wanted one, so I plan to buy an authentic piece and support an African artist once I find some designs I like.
Whether you’re white or colored, majority or minority- If you decide to adopt something from another culture, reflect on your motives first. Are you ready to take on the responsibility that comes with representing another culture? If someone were to ask you about it, how would you answer?
Comment below with your thoughts!