Cultural appropriation takes center stage

Ksenia Gorinshteyn, Entertainment Editor

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Instagram and other social media outlets have been bombarded in recent years with photos of festival-goers wearing bindis, painting themselves with henna tattoos and adopting “boho” looks. However, the cultural trademarks that seem to have been morphed into mere fashion statements, are beginning to lose their true meaning in today’s society.
The issue of cultural appropriation has found its way into the mainstream over the past couple of years and many seem to misunderstand its true meaning.

“Cultural appropriation is a practice in which people adopt certain styles, practices or traditions of other cultures without being sensitive to the histories of those cultures, histories which often involve exploitation or violence,” said Eve Oishi, associate professor of cultural studies at Claremont Graduate

University in an email interview. “A dominant culture occupies and transforms another culture and then romanticizes what it has destroyed.”

Oishi gives the example of using Native American rituals as part of a new-age self-help practice. In doing so, individuals are taking these rituals out of their cultural contexts and ignoring the sacredness of said rituals. What was created for and by a minority group is thus misused.

“In some ways, [cultural appropriation] robs the less dominant culture of the thing that they once claimed as their own,” English teacher Jeff Barry said. “For a minority culture, it’s often hard to find one’s place or to find one’s identity as it is, especially when you feel as though your culture is under attack. If cultural appropriation is happening, it makes it harder for someone to have pride with themselves or at least a larger cultural identity.”

A more recent example of stripping a minority group of their cultural identity can be seen in Miley Cyrus’ adoption of clip-on dreadlocks and her use of people of color in the background of her performances. In many music videos since the release of her album “Bangerz” in 2013, Cyrus has used aspects of African-American culture as a form of entertainment. By using these culturally specific styles and using people of color as “props,” as she was criticized of doing, Cyrus ultimately stereotypes the culture and glamorizes a piece of a minority group’s identity.

“It is a long-standing and popular custom for celebrities to borrow clothing styles or other aspects of cultures out of context,” Oishi said. “Another common practice in fashion magazines is to stage a fashion shoot in another country in which a white model poses in front of a group of darker people. The people lose their individuality and humanity and are used simply as a backdrop or wallpaper that signifies the ‘exotic.’”

While it may not seem like a big deal to wear hairstyles such as dreadlocks, if an individual that does not come from that culture chooses to overlook the historical and cultural importance of features such as dreadlocks, it starts to become an issue of power and privilege and that spreads stereotypes.

“When you have a white person growing dreadlocks or getting cornrows, it’s…something they can do because they’re in a place of privilege and don’t understand how their privilege allows them to disregard others and their history,” Barry said.

“It’s different because it’s not coming from the culture itself, so when it’s coming from someone with privilege, like if I walked around with a bindi or box braids, [it’s not used in the right cultural context],” senior Molly Sundal said. “If someone is trying to make a statement or they’re trying to educate others, they should be from that culture.”

Although the historical and cultural significance of a person’s henna tattoo may not come up in a conversation, the fact of the matter is, these things also create a huge social distance between dominant and marginalized groups.

“[Glamorizing cultural features] encourages us not to see people from other cultures as [being] like us,” Oishi said. “When you don’t see the full humanity of another person, it becomes much easier to justify or ignore violence against them.”

Another conflict that may arise amongst the dominant culture is the question of whether the minority can appropriate a piece of dominant culture. For example, a person of privilege might ask, why is it not considered cultural appropriation if an African-American woman uses relaxers, a hair product used to make hair more manageable, in her hair to make it seem more “white?”

“If you’re in a place of power and privilege, your culture can’t really be appropriated because it’s constantly on display and it’s constantly being appreciated,” Barry said.

While the whole concept of cultural appropriation may seem broad and rigid, it’s important to note that this doesn’t only happen, during festival season, on Halloween or in the media. Cultural appropriation also occurs in Grayslake, whether it’s obvious or not.

“When seniors do the senior countdown, this has become an issue in the past because there used to be days like G for Gangster Day and kids from Grayslake would dress up wearing urban wear,” Barry said.

“What students wear as a costume is what [teens who live in the city] wear as a way of representing themselves, so it’s kind of disrespectful to think it’s just a costume. It’s degrading to people who are like, ‘No, this is who I am; this is not a costume for you to wear.’”

Although we don’t usually think about this, certain pieces of clothing may actually bring offense to some individuals who normally take pride in the uniqueness of their culture.

“I think everyone has to take into consideration that maybe the choices they’re making fashion-wise could affect anybody in any way,” Sundal said.

However, clothing is not the only way in which a culture can be appropriated. Cultural appropriation is evident in the slang many teens use nowadays, the popularization of the hamsa hand, which is a sacred symbol in Middle Eastern religion, and even getting a tattoo written in Chinese. To most, these items are just trends, but in reality, they are pieces of someone’s culture that have been molded to fit the dominant population’s aesthetic. There is a fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation, and it needs to be made clear.

“It is an important concept for high school students to understand, because they are at a point in their educational journey where they are capable of understanding their everyday practices within a broader cultural and historical context,” Oishi said.

“There’s a huge difference between appreciating a culture and appropriating it,” Sundal said. “When you go to a different country and throw yourself into their culture and try to understand it the most you can, that’s appreciating.”

Since cultural appropriation is something that affects many groups and cultures, it’s crucial to be cautious when choosing things as simple as room decor, Halloween costumes or outfits for the next day.

Although appropriation isn’t a new concept to society, it’s spreading rapidly and it needs to be addressed to help non-dominant groups claim what was once theirs and to also help educate the dominant white society on the diverse cultural landscape that is present in the world today.

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Cultural appropriation takes center stage