Cultural (mis)appropriation: before you get offended by other people getting offended, hear what I have to say

November 16, 2017 — by Katherine Zhou

Senior shares her opinion on the fine line between cultural acceptance and cultural distortion. 

When I went to Hakone Gardens in Saratoga this past spring, I saw several young white girls wearing traditional Japanese dresses. A tour guide was explaining the historical significance of the garden and they were learning about Japanese culture.

Recently, I saw a picture on Instagram. An African-American woman had ripped apart a qipao, a traditional Chinese dress, and resown it in what can only described as underwear with straps. The caption was “sweet or sour sauce anyone?”

Can you spot the difference between the two situations?

Both can technically be seen as cultural appropriation, otherwise known as “adoption of elements of another culture.” But the first situation fosters acceptance for another culture, while the second blatantly disrespects the history and traditions from another culture, stealing aspects of another culture without care or respect.

The second situation is what I would label as cultural misappropriation, or when cultural aspects are used in ways that are either adopted from a minority culture to a colonial one, or are used in contexts that are disrespectful to the original cultural context. Too often nowadays, cultural misappropriation has become synonymous with cultural appropriation.

Although clothing seems like something insignificant, there are deep-rooted issues that are brought up in cultural appropriation. While it may be “easier” to ignore them, addressing the issues will pave the way for the progression of society.

There are two main aspects of cultural appropriation I want to address: 1.) the difference between respecting a culture and distorting it and 2.) how racial power dynamics can become involved.

Everyone can agree that culture is beautiful and sacred, and hopefully most people agree that it is important to preserve. It is amazing to share culture and learn more about different cultures — this process helps preserve culture even further.

However, when culture is distorted or abused, it defeats the entire purpose of sharing culture in the first place. Take Native American costumes.

Often times, the costumes look nothing like original clothing. Instead, they reflect just a caricature/stereotype, and are made to be more revealing and inappropriate in order to suit the wearer’s own needs. The headdresses and clothing can have significant religious meaning to the Native Americans, and wearing them as a costume with little or no knowledge of the significance does nothing to spread or share their culture. This is simply degrading someone’s culture into a costume.

Another example that recently made headlines is Disney pulling from production the “Maui” costume from the movie “Moana.” First of all, the costume featured a brown-skinned shirt. This one has an easy fix: Don’t mimic another race’s skin color.

Not only are there historical implications of mocking minorities by wearing their skin color as a costume, but other races, even other minorities, cannot understand the struggles that groups face by having their skin. The second part is the Taulima, Pe’a, Malu or Ta Moko tattoo. According to Polynesian author Emmaline Mation on the Spinoff, “These have deep cultural significance … [they have] specific meanings [dating] back thousands of years to when our ancestors didn’t have a written language but had tatau and oral traditions.”

Basically, by taking this tattoo and using it for something it was not meant for (a costume) without knowing or understanding its cultural significance, “it is turning it into an accessory for your own fun or entertainment and therefore changing the true meaning of the item,” Matagion said.

To sum up my first point: Using someone else’s culture as an accessory without learning about the culture distorts the culture and does nothing to spread cultural awareness.

Additionally, even though people may not have bad intentions, racial power dynamics and racism play into effect in cultural appropriation.

Here’s an example: When an African-American woman wears dreadlocks, which Africans have worn through generations (they have even excavated dreadlocks from African graves), it is often frowned upon and seen as disgusting. But once another race adopts it, such as (white male) Marc Jacobs in his fashion show, all of a sudden it becomes high fashion.

You might ask, what’s wrong with that? Sure, the acceptance of an element of culture that used to be frowned-down upon is now seen as beautiful. But that’s the thing. It highlights the privilege and disrespect that some people have to go through. On a black person? Not cool, or “ghetto.” On another race, it is “high fashion and couture.”

Basically, people show love for the “culture but remain prejudiced against the people,” according to Everyday Feminism.

There is a long list of other reasons that are more specific to certain cases. Historical oppression can be trivialized by cultural appropriation, like the NFL team the Washington Redskins. It makes things cool for some races and not for others. It lets people get rewarded for innovations that stem from other cultures. (See: Rock n’ Roll was shaped by black blues artists in the 1950s, yet Elvis Presley gets all the credit.) Wearing cultural costumes/inaccurate representations of cultures can cause racist stereotypes and mass lies about marginalized cultures. (See: The Disney movie “Pocahontas.”)

Most importantly, cultural appropriation lets privileged people benefit from cultures without having to face the difficulties that come with being a member of that race. Again, outsiders is arguably never able to feel the struggles another race has gone through, so they shouldn’t take borrowing another’s culture lightly.

I hope that as our society progresses, we won’t have to worry about racism in terms of cultural appropriation, and we can focus more on the preservation and maintaining the original cultures with respect.

So, the next time you want to use aspects of another culture, ask yourself 1.) What is the context? 2.) What are the racial implications? 3.) Is it distorting/destroying aspects of traditional culture? If you realize that it’s disrespectful, it would be best to make another choice.

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