APPRECIATION VERSUS APPROPRIATION: WHERE’S THE LINE?
By Jacqueline Huerta
10 • 30 • 2018
Every year, we see the term sweep the internet like clockwork: festival, prom, and now, Halloween season. We hear millions of different opinions, from the qualified to the questionable.
With cultural appropriation as the fuel to so many heated debates, the issue is easily reduced to trivial, online social justice outrage; however, cultural appropriation is a problem that expands beyond Twitter and into the long, deep-rooted histories of oppression and erasure that certain cultures have faced.
In a political climate that targets, stereotypes, and dehumanizes certain cultures, it is especially crucial to remain culturally conscious and sensitive to others’ experiences and suffering. But what exactly is cultural appropriation? And how do we remain cultural sensitive in a time filled with so much racially charged rhetoric?
I asked three individuals to share their views and experiences with cultural appropriation.
“My favorite metaphor for cultural appropriation is getting an F on a paper while someone else gets an A for writing the exact same words,” New Jersey-born and South India-raised Maya Radhakrishnan said when asked to define cultural appropriation.
“A culturally insensitive costume isn't just a costume. It unearths systemic issues like racial power dynamics and the challenges of the immigrant experience within people who have watched their parents and siblings go through the same obstacles countless times. Personally, seeing bindis and henna tattoos at Coachella makes me think of all the weird looks my grandmother gets for wearing the very same things and it doesn't feel so good.”
When it comes to the appropriation versus appreciation debate, Maya believes that it’s a pretty easily defined line. "The two main parts of appreciation are understanding what a symbol means and using it in an appropriate setting. It helps to talk to someone who is actually a part of that culture, and see how a seemingly small symbol can be so focal to a cultural identity. People respond well when they hear the historical significance behind something that they hadn't thought of before and both parties are the better for it. I'm a huge advocate for this kind of knowledge-based cultural sharing. Most religious festivals and rituals are only improved by having more people participate in them, so the more the merrier!”
Maya’s biggest advice for remaining culturally conscious this Halloween is: go for the cliches. “I'd rather a sea of angels and devils than one more Sacajawea. Halloween is a time for religion, spirits, and the macabre, but cultural appropriation is the one demon I don’t want to see this year.”
Sisi Li, a Chinese American, has her own views on cultural appropriation, recounting her own experiences with racism and daily microaggressions. “Culture appropriation is when someone takes aspects of a culture that is not theirs but exploits it in a way that only serves to benefit the person,” she said. “A lot of times cultural appropriation happens in a fashion context, but a lot of people can also appropriate culture by speaking with a certain accent or vernacular that is integral to someone else's culture.”
Just like Radhakrishnan, Sisi also thinks the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation can be a line hard to distinguish. “The most important thing is that if there's a lack of knowledge around the cultural significance, then it's appropriation. There's no respect when that happens so it's definitely not appreciating a culture. Thinking about power dynamics and historical and social context is key.”
Sisi remembers being pressured to not identify with aspects of her Chinese culture when growing up, which makes it especially problematic when she sees other ethnicities wearing the traditional Chinese garb she was told to distance herself from when she was young.“I remember kids making fun of my food and tugging the corners of their eyes, creating a caricature of my identity,” she said. “So many people around me have dealt with similar instances, so seeing someone appropriate mine or other people's culture is just like a huge ‘fuck you and your struggles’ to us.”
In Sisi’s eyes, the biggest problem with cultural appropriation is the disregard it holds for the hardship and oppression these minorities have faced in the past and still face today. o “Cultural appropriation has been responsible for fetishizing cultures and even makes a spectacle out of them,” she said. “When a dominant group appropriates culture, they often get praised for it whereas marginalized groups are discouraged to display their culture.”
Finally, Sisi shares her tips to keep in mind when choosing a costume this Halloween: do your research and have these conversations to encourage mindfulness of others – you never know when you might be the one appropriating someone’s culture without knowing.
“Having friends who are people of color or identify with that culture doesn't give people a pass to appropriate culture,” she said. “It never hurts to have a conversation if you want to know more, but the biggest advice I have is: if you think it's culturally insensitive, just don't do it. Culture should never ever be a costume.”